LOS ANGELES ART COMMUNITY: GROUP PORTRAIT
Interviewed by Joann Phillips
Completed under the auspices
Oral History Program
University of California
Copyright (c) 1977
The Regents of the University of California
This manuscript is hereby made available for research
purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript,
including the right to publication, are reserved to the
University Library of the University of California at
Los Angeles. No part of the manuscript may be quoted
for publication without the written permission of the
University Librarian of the University of California
at Los Angeles.
LOS ANGELES ART COMMUNITY: GROUP PORTRAIT
This interview is one of a series, entitled "Los Angeles
Art Community: Group Portrait, " funded by the National
Endowment for the Humanities and conducted from July 1,
1975 to March 31, 1977 by the UCLA Oral History Program.
The project was directed jointly by Page Ackerman,
University Librarian, and Gerald Nordland, Director,
UCLA Art Galleries, and administered by Bernard Galm,
Director, Oral History Program. After selection of
interview candidates and interviewers, the Program
assiamed responsibility for the conduct of all interviews
and their processing.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Interview History xi
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side One (February 26, 1976) .... 1
Birth in Chicago — Family history — Early
experiences of music and art — Museum visits —
School--Vacation trips--Fathers and sons —
Leaving home--High school — Dropping out of
high school — Trafficking during Prohibition —
Art school at Chicago Art Institute — Working
at Katharine Kuh's gallery.
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side Two (February 26, 1976) .... 26
Chicago Art Institute school — Boris Anisfeld —
Work Projects Administration in Chicago and
East St. Louis — World War II: topographical
draftsman for the Army Air Force.
[Second Part] (March 4, 1976) 40
Jazz in Chicago — A first marriage — More on
World War II — Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the
Chicago Institute of Design — A visit by
Fernand Leger--Man Ray.
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side One (March 4, 1976) 53
More on Moholy-Nagy and the Institute of Design
--A trip to New York — Marriage to Dina McLean--
The Yucatan by way of Black Mountain College
and New York — A season in the Yucatan — Return
to Chicago — Teaching at the Colorado Springs
Fine Arts Center, 1950-57 — Shows — The Byrneses
and their friends.
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side Two (March 18, 1976) 80
Leaving Colorado Springs--Trip to New York —
Travel in Europe — Stay on Ischia, 1957-59 —
Art in Europe — Meeting Duchamp and Dali —
Painting procedures and styles — Influence
of environment--Inf luence of Picasso and
Miro — Six favorite artists — More on Europe.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side One (March 18, 1976) 105
Return to America — Problems of travel — Issues
and personalities in the arts today--Feminism
— Art critics.
[Second Part] (March 23, 1976) 115
More on marriage to Dina and the Chicago
period — More contemporary issues — Jazz in
Chicago — Teaching at the Chouinard Art
Institute, 1959 — The art scene in Southern
California: galleries, artists, and museums
— Clement Greenberg.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side Two (March 23, 1976) 131
Evaluating and selecting own work — More on the
L.A. art scene of the early sixties--Tamarind
Lithography Workshop — Chouinard Art Institute
and its metamorphosis into Cal Arts — Summers
in Europe--Shows — Hawaii--Turkey--The UCLA art
gallery — Museum directors and critics--Shows
in the East — "Laying low" — General overview.
TAPE NUMBER: IV [video session] (April 30, 1976) . • 157
In the home: examples from the collection of
primitive art--Primitivism and modernism--
Works by other artists — A talk with his mother
--In the studio: collage and lithography — A
chronological survey of works — Chicago —
Yucatan — Colorado Springs — Ischia — Los Angeles.
Index of Emerson Woelffer Works 192
[Frontis photograph of Emerson Woelffer courtesy
of Dina Woelffer]
Emerson Seville Woelffer was born July 27, 1914, in
Chicago, Illinois, the son of George and Rita Seville
Woelffer. His father was in the real estate and insurance
business, and Emerson (who was named after Ralph Waldo
Emerson) grew up in a neighborly Chicago of gaslights,
backyard gardens, and horse-drawn fire engines. He was
always interested in drawing and music; as a well-attended
only child, he was taken often to the Field Museum and the
theater, and he was given piano lessons by his mother, her
sisters, and other doting relatives.
After a faltering high school career, he entered the
Chicago Art Institute in 1935 and knew immediately that he
would become a painter. His early teachers were important
to him, as was his exposure to the painting masterpieces
of the Chicago Art Institute. But it was a part-time job
with Katharine Kuh, hanging art shows at her gallery of
modern art, that shaped his attitudes toward art making.
In the gallery, he worked with shows of Picasso, Klee, and
Miro; under Kuh's guidance, he discovered the Dada and
surrealist artists, who influenced him more than the
conservative instruction of the Art Institute.
Woelffer 's next major influence was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy,
who had settled in Chicago and set up the Chicago Institute
of Design in the pattern of the Bauhaus school. Moholy
discovered Woelffer while he was participating in the
WPA Federal Art Project and invited him to become an
instructor at the institute, initiating a period of great
ferment and stimulation for the young artist. His
affiliation, from 1941 to 1949, put him in contact with
some of the most creative and innovative minds then in
the Chicago area, including Aaron Siskind, Serge Chermayeff,
Hugo Weber, Mies van der Rohe, and Moholy himself.
The ideas of the Bauhaus, as unfolded by Moholy,
exercised a lasting influence upon Woelffer: the pervasive
sense of design and taste inherent in all of his work and
lifestyle can be attributed to this period of growth.
Woelffer married photographer Dina Anderson McLean in
1945, and their studio-home became a center for artists and
musicians. Pee Wee Russell, Momma and Jimmy Yancey, and
Bunk Johnson were all regular visitors and performers. In
the summer of 1949, Buckminster Fuller invited the Woelffers
to teach at Black Mountain College, and there they came in
contact with Herbert Bayer and poet Charles Olson. That
fall, they traveled to Campeche, Yucatan, where they lived
isolated from America and modern life for six months. This
period was a prolific one for Woelffer, who seemed to
settle down to a mature and individual style.
Upon his return from Yucatan, Woelffer secured a
teaching position at the Colorado Fine Arts Center. There
he became close to the center's director, Mitchell Wilder,
and its subsequent director, James Byrnes, and his wife
Barbara. At Colorado, his essentially abstract, postcubist
paintings incorporated references to birds and jets and to
the feeling of the vast Colorado land- and skyscapes.
In the summer of 1956, Robert Motherwell came to teach
at Colorado Springs, and Woelffer formed with him a close
and enduring friendship; Woelffer remains a devoted admirer
of Motherwell's painting and writing.
Woelffer began to receive national recognition during
this period, and he was invited to participate in several
important annual shows and to show in New York and Los
Angeles galleries. Through the Byrneses, he met Paul
Kantor, then a dealer of avant-garde art, and Kantor gave
him several shows in Los Angeles.
From 1957 to 1959, the Woelffers lived a simple,
isolated existence in Ischia, Italy, where his work was
visibly affected by the aged, graffiti-scribbled walls
and by the black-garbed, somber — almost mystical — peasantry.
(Environment has always affected the look of Woelffer 's art:
his colors became bright and vivid when he moved to luxuriantly
green and sunny Southern California in the late 1950s.)
His old friend Mitch Wilder brought Woelffer to Los
Angeles in 1959, following his return from Ischia, to
teach at the Chouinard Art Institute. The list of his
Chouinard students was impressive, including Larry Bell,
Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Chuck Arnoldi, and Ron Cooper. He
later taught at the California Institute of the Arts and
the Otis Art Institute.
Woelffer has shown at a variety of galleries in New
York and Los Angeles. Locally, he has been represented
by the Stuart-Primus Gallery, the David Stuart Gallery,
and the Jodi Scully Gallery. His New York dealers have
been the Poindexter Gallery and the Egan Gallery.
Important moments in Woelffer 's career have included
a 1962 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, a State
Department grant to visit Turkey in 1965, a Guggenheim
Fellowship in 1967, and 1974 retrospectives at the Newport
Harbor Art Museum and the Phillips Collection, Washington,
D.C. He was artist in residence at the Honolulu Academy
of the Arts in 197 0.
Woelffer 's painting reflects the style of abstract
expressionism and the strong influences of surrealism,
automatism, and jazz improvisation. He has always
collected primitive and Southwest Indian art, having
traveled widely in the Southwest; and the emotional
primal quality of these treasured objects permeates
his art. He applies paint directly and confidently;
the importance of the brushstroke, the act of painting.
is paramount to him. On occasion, he has applied paint
directly with his fingers and hands, in the method of
the prehistoric cave painters.
Much loved by his friends and family, he is philosophical
in his attitudes as a painter, and willing to take life as
he finds it, as long as it offers a modicum of style, wit,
good company, and good art.
Los Angeles, California
INTERVIEV7ER: Joann Phillips, Editor-Interviewer,
UCLA Oral History Program (for "Los Angeles Art
Community: Group Portrait"). BA, University
of California, Santa Barbara.
TIME AND SETTING OF INTERVIEW:
Place : Emerson Woelffer's home and studio, 475
Dustin Drive, Los Angeles.
Dates ; February 26, March 4, 18, 23, April 30
[video session], 1976.
Time of day , length of sessions , and total number
of recording hours : The interviews took place in
the late morning and averaged an hour and a half
in length. Approximately six hours were recorded.
Persons present during interview : Woelffer and
Phillips. Rita and Dina Woelffer, the artist's
mother and wife respectively, were present during
the video taping, in addition to crew members
Nancy Olexo and Francine Breslin.
CONDUCT OF THE INTERVIEW:
The purpose of the interview was to obtain infor-
mation about the artist's career, his early back-
ground, and his attitude toward art making. Special
emphasis was placed on his years in Los Angeles. He
was encouraged to express his views on the creative
process. Two show catalogs were of enormous
assistance during the conduct of the interview:
Emerson Woelffer, Work from 1946 to 1962 , Pasadena
Art Museum, introductory essay by Gerald Nordland;
and Emerson Woelffer , Newport Harbor Art Museum,
introductory essay by Paul Wescher.
Editing was done by the interviewer, who checked
the verbatim transcript against the original tape
recordings and edited for punctuation, spelling,
paragraphing, and verification of proper and place
The manuscript was reviewed and approved by Mr.
Woelffer. He made no deletions or additions,
but he supplied names not previously verified.
The index was prepared by Lawrence Weschler,
Assistant Editor, Oral History Program. The
introduction was written by the interviewer.
Other front matter was prepared by Program
The original tape recordings, video tape, and
edited transcript of the interview are in the
University Archives and are available under the
regulations governing use of permanent noncurrent
records of the University.
Records relating to this interview are located in
the office of the UCLA Oral History Program.
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE ONE
FEBRUARY 26, 197 6
PHILLIPS: You were born in Chicago in 1914. Would you
like to tell me a little bit about your childhood and what
you remember? Why don't we start with what your parents
were like and what you remember.
WOELFFER: I remember the fire station around the corner
and the police station around the corner vaguely. At that
particular time on our street we had gaslights , and a man
would come around every evening and light up the gas-
lights. And the fire department and the police department
equipment were drawn by horses instead of cars. We had a
house — my mother and father and myself; and we had several
Dalmatian dogs, and in the backyard next to a playpen we
had chickens, as most people did in those days. And one
thing that stands out in my mind is that every Sunday we
had chicken on the table. They'd be sort of pets to me,
but every Sunday there'd be one missing. My father'd do
away with one. It was quite a terrifying experience at a
young age to sit down to dinner eating one of my pets I
used to play with through the cage.
PHILLIPS: In the neighborhood in Chicago, did you live
in an apartment?
WOELFFER: No, it was a house. That part of Chicago, at
that time, was on the outskirts of a pickle farm, Budlong
Pickle Farm, as I recall. There were a lot of trees and
woods, and I recall my father used to play tennis with
another neighbor of ours by the name of Kraft, who used
to have a cheese business. He had a wagon. He'd go around
the neighborhood selling cheese. It was the beginning of
the Kraft Cheese Company. My father played tennis every
Saturday with Mr. Kraft.
PHILLIPS: Your father's name was German.
WOELFFER: George Woelffer.
PHILLIPS: George Woelffer. Tell me your full name, and
what your mother might have had in mind.
WOELFFER: My full name was Emerson Seville Woelffer.
Seville came from her father, who was Algernon Sidney
Seville, who was in the music business, QRS Piano Rolls, in
Memphis, Tennessee, and he worked many of the player-piano
rolls, transcribing them from the piano onto the player
rolls with W. C. Handy. I recall my grandfather coming up
maybe once a year and always bringing me some fabulous
kind of gift in the way of a musical instrument, which I
had no desire for. And I remember one time he brought a
huge, huge box, a huge paintbox with all sorts of colors
and brushes in it.
PHILLIPS: What was the other family name that your mother's
so proud of?
WOELFFER: De la Fontaine. That was her mother's maiden
name, and her two aunts, from Saint Croix, Switzerland.
That's the French side of the family, and my father's side
was the German side of the family. His father was in the
meat-processing business with a man by the name of Oscar
Mayer. They worked side by side making sausages. And then
Oscar Mayer took off on his own one day and started his
own business, which is Oscar Mayer [& Co.] now.
PHILLIPS: And de la Fontaine was related to the famous
French fabulist [Jean de la Fontaine] .
WOELFFER: Right. My mother's grandfather was de la
Fontaine, and his wife was Paillard, and the family still
lives in Saint Croix, Swi tzerland--Paillards . The whole
town is Paillard. Paillards make the Bolex movie camera
and the Hermes typewriter. They first started out making
PHILLIPS: You had a lot of relatives who did well at
making certain products and some of them who came close to
WOELFFER: Always just close.
PHILLIPS: Always just close. Do you remember how old you
were when your grandfather brought you the paint box from
WOELFFER: I guess I was about eight or nine. He also
brought a xylophone, and I didn't take to it. He bought a
violin and a saxophone. He played practically every
instrument. In fact, he organized a businessman's string
orchestra in Memphis, and he made every instrument in the
That was my first contact, in a sense, with painting,
except in grade school, where everybody pushes paint and
chalk around on paper. He used to take me to the Field
Museum in Chicago; this was my first contact with primitive
PHILLIPS: What is at the Field Museum?
WOELFFER: It is now called the Museum of Natural History.
Marshall Field changed the name to the Museum of Natural
History because he wanted it to be a public museum; he
didn't want it named after himself. And it's housed in
Grant Park in one of the only remaining buildings from the
Columbian World's Fair in 1893 or something like that. It
houses not only works and costumes of people from New
Guinea and Africa but China and Japan and Indonesia--all
over the world, including artifacts of the people of this
PHILLIPS: What do you remember from those childhood visits
to that museum?
WOELFFER: The first thing, the two elephants you see as
you walk into this huge entranceway at the Field Museum. I
was there just a few months ago. I was flabbergasted;
they'd been in the same position for all these years, and
somebody decided to turn them around. So instead of see-
ing them from the front when you come in, you see them
from the back. It sort of flipped me because I was used
to seeing them the other way.
PHILLIPS: I know you have a great interest these days,
and have for the last many years, in primitive art and that
you collect as much as you can. I wonder how you see that
related to your own art making.
WOELFFER: Well, I think very definitely that what I like
in it is the magic of it. As we know, the cubist painters
collected solely African art because in African art, the
imagery comes out of animals around them, whereas the sur-
realist artists collected mainly the work of Oceanic
culture. These things were much more magical. And so I
collect both; I like both the abstract idea of the African
carvings and also the magic and the mystery of these works
of New Ireland and New Guinea.
PHILLIPS: Have you always been interested in primitive
art? Can you think of the time when it started, that you
really began to identify things?
WOELFFER: Even before I started going to the [Chicago] Art
Institute, I was very much interested in that. In fact, in
grade school, they used to take us once a month or so to
the Field Museum to look at the stuffed animals, and I
found myself always wandering off into the other halls,
where they had the weapons and the images and the idols of
Africa and New Guinea. I was always intrigued by those
PHILLIPS: Those museum experiences were very meaningful to
you when you were young?
WOELFFER: They also took us to the Art Institute of Chicago
to look at the paintings of George Innes and Francois
Millet, and I again would always wander off to look at the
pictures I didn't understand but I was very much attracted
to, the abstract paintings of the French school and so on.
PHILLIPS: Did your family take you there first or the
WOELFFER: No, the school took us there. And we'd go on
Saturdays, and we would sketch a plaster cast in the museum
halls, and that was ray first contact with that. And then
my mother's aunt, who was a cashier for many years at the
Auditorium Hotel, where the famous Auditorium Theatre is,
came in contact with many actors, opera people, and came
in contact with one man especially by the name of Carl
Bohnen, who had a studio in the Fine Arts Building of
Chicago; and she arranged for me to go up and see him. I
was then maybe twelve or thirteen years of age, maybe a
little more. And he had a studio in Chicago, New York,
London, and Paris. He was a very dignified man, wore a
cane, felt hat, and was one of the world's leading portrait
painters at the time. And I was very much intrigued by
my visit to him in his studio in the Fine Arts Building--
beautifully, highly polished wood floors and Oriental rugs
in his studio and no paint on the floor. [laughter] Mar-
velous paintings. Looking back at his work now, I think
he was a very good portrait painter. But I told him how
I'd love to paint like he, and he said, "No, you go to the
Arts Club, or when you go to the Art Institute, look at
the work of the impressionist painters. Those are the good
painters. Don't look at my work." Very marvelous man.
And I did what he said and became quite intrigued with
PHILLIPS: Why don't you tell me how your mother and father
reacted individually to your interest in art?
WOELFFER: Well, my mother — everything I did was fine. My
father was quite cool about the whole thing. At that
particular time he didn't think he had to worry about my
making a career out of art. I think if he had thought so,
he would have tried to curtail it early because he was just
a businessman and thought of one thing only — money. And
so he felt it was a passing kind of thing with me. And
when people raved about my little paintings and drawings,
he thought that was fine. But he was rather cool on it.
He had ideas of a baseball player or a football player or
something in the sports world. When you retired you could
make quite a bit of money selling insurance or whatever,
due to your background as an athlete.
PHILLIPS: You said he was a businessman. What did he do?
WOELFFER: He was in the insurance and real estate business,
But he liked sports. He played golf; he played tennis
quite a bit.
PHILLIPS: Were you ever able to talk to him about your
desire to become an artist, or did you just avoid that?
WOELFFER: We didn't talk about it too much, but when we
did, it was in relation to the covers on McCall ' s , Saturday
Evening Post , or the Liberty magazine--in terms of becoming
an illustrator. I wasn't thinking particularly in one
direction at all. I thought it would be nice to be on the
cover of Saturday Evening Post — all the millions of people
who were looking at your work, quite a nice, large audience.
And in fact, when I started art school, I had somewhere
in the back of my mind to be an illustrator, and that was
nipped in the bud very early. I met some very exciting
students at art school.
PHILLIPS: When you were growing up, were there any paint-
ings in your house?
WOELFFER: We had a painting over the upright piano, a
reproduction of a painting by Maxfield Parrish, one of
which I think everybody who had a piano or a fireplace
had. Parrish today has regained some kind of a popular-
ity, in a pop art kind of way, through Lawrence Alloway--
Alloway sort of rediscovered Maxfield Parrish.
PHILLIPS: Was anyone very religious in your household?
Did that play any element in your growing up?
WOELFFER: No. My mother's aunts were Christian Scientists,
and now and then they would take me to one of the services.
And my father was quite open in that way, and my mother
also, saying that I should find my own. So I went to
Presbyterian Sunday school, and I went to a Lutheran Sunday
school. Then finally, when I was in grade school, I met
a couple of fellows who sang in the Episcopal choir, for
fifty cents a Sunday. And I thought that was pretty in-
triguing, so I sang in the Episcopal choir for, I think,
two years, but as far as any kind of heavy religious impact
on me, there was absolutely none whatsoever. I don't fol-
low any religion.
PHILLIPS: Your childhood was in the city rather than in
the country, and I think that's had an influence on your
life, don't you?
WOELFFER: I think so. And we moved several times. We
left the house that we lived in, I guess, when I was eleven
or twelve and moved to an apartment building, and then to
another apartment building. And later, in 1927, I recall
the flight of Lindbergh over the ocean. I was then
bedridden — I'd picked up some kind of a bug in northern
Wisconsin stripping bark off trees for log cabins. Wayne
King, the orchestra leader, had several acres of land and
was building up there, and a friend of mine worked for
him, so I went up for a summer.
PHILLIPS : How old were you then?
WOELFFER: I was about fifteen, I guess. And I came down
with some kind of rare disease. They just found out about
four years ago what it was. It's called Stevens-Johnson
[syndrome], which is something quite rare; and it is fatal,
I understand, in most cases. I was shipped down from
northern Wisconsin, and the doctors came in, and they
didn't know what I had. I was bedridden for a year. I
was blind for three months. I lost my fingernails.
PHILLIPS: Were you terrified when you went blind?
WOELFFER: No, no — not at all.
PHILLIPS: Because you were so sick.
WOELFFER: Yeah, I was sick. I had the radio. And just
recently they found out what it was, and maybe it came
from the stripping of the bark. We used to chew the bark;
they thought maybe some animal had deposited something
on the bark and I had ingested it. They really don't know;
it's a very rare disease.
PHILLIPS: When you were over it, were you completely over
it, or were there residuals?
WOELFFER: I was completely over it, and I then went back
to school, and they advised me at school that I should
take it easy. And, as I showed some talent in art, that
I should go to Saturday art school at the Art Institute,
which I did. And this was the whole beginning of my paint-
PHILLIPS: Do you remember any teachers in grade school
who had a particular influence on you?
WOELFFER: Yeah, I had a couple that were very much in-
terested in my drawing and painting, but as far as the
academic subjects — arithmetic, etc.--I would say no. I
didn't excel too much in those subjects.
PHILLIPS: Would you say, looking back, that you were
pretty talented as a draftsman and a painter?
WOELFFER: Yeah. I enjoyed it, I loved it — to draw every-
thing. And there was a fellow who lived around the corner-
his name, I even now recall, Louis Grell — and he had a
studio in what is still called the Tree Studio Building in
Chicago. It's a wonderful studio building, and I went to
see him, and he was painting skies for the Balaban and
Katz theaters, and I was quite impressed with it. Any-
body v/ho was able to translate something in paint, I was
quite thrilled with. And when I was able to see again, I
read nearly everything of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Tarzan
series. And one day I was in the Tree Studio Building to
see Mr. Louis Grell's latest painting, and I saw on the
door the name of Alan St. John. Here was the man who had
illustrated all the Tarzan books, so I knocked on his
door. He was a very nice old gentleman. He wanted me to
come to his studio, and he was in one of these beautiful
studios with a balcony and Oriental rugs and a baby grand
piano with a Spanish scarf thrown over it and big palettes
hanging on the wall. I think in the very beginning that
art was sort of a romantic idea with me, a very romantic
thing, and I think that after one gets out of art school
and gets into the real world, I think that the notion
disappears very rapidly.
PHILLIPS: And another question I wanted to ask you about
your childhood was about trips that you might have taken,
excursions out of Chicago. Special events.
WOELFFER: On my birthday every year, my mother's aunt,
who was a sister of the aunt who was a cashier at the
Auditorium Hotel--she was a cashier in a very fancy ice
cream soda parlor and candy store in Chicago--and on my
birthday, she would take me for a bus ride either to Rock-
ford or Aurora, Illinois, or to Elgin, Illinois, for the
day. And those were my excursions out, because in those
days to have somebody on your block with an automobile was
quite a rarity.
PHILLIPS: Did you take any summer trips with your parents?
WOELFFER: Well, my father wasn't an outdoorsman, to the
extent of woods or hunting or fishing or anything like that.
I think once he had a business associate who had a big
touring automobile, and we took a trip to Waukegan, Illi-
nois, for the weekend, and stayed at the Salvation Army
Hotel. I recall that very distinctly. Oh, yes, and then
twice in the summer, when I was about twelve or thirteen,
lay mother's aunt had a friend who had a farm in Barion
Springs, Michigan. We used to take the bus up there to
this wonderful old farmhouse. And on the way up, the bus
would stop at the House of David, where all the bearded
people were. At Barion Springs, Mr. Lybrook--that ' s what
his name was, a man who weighed about 400 pounds--we
would pick apples, and I'd ride on the tractor with him.
I remember one day on the tractor with him he ploughed up
a nest of bumblebees, and they just swarmed, and he took
me and threw me away from- -anyway , I had a head full of
bumblebee stings, and I was quite ill for several weeks.
Those are about all the excursions that I can recall.
PHILLIPS: What was the House of David?
WOELFFER: It's a religious organization. I forget the
exact name of the city in Michigan where they are, but I
think maybe in Michigan City--they had an amusement park
there, and they had a very good baseball team. I don't
exactly know the name of the religious organization--all
the men had long hair and long beards.
Was it a Jewish Orthodox religion, do you think?
No, it wasn ' t .
More like the German . . .
Like Seventh-Day Adventists, something like that.
They had an amusement park.
PHILLIPS: Were you quite interested in sports as a child?
WOELFFER: Yes, you know, we played sandlot baseball and
touch football. After my illness, about, I think, in the
early thirties, we organized a neighborhood baseball team,
and ice skating was a specialty. I did racing ice skating
in school also. My mother's uncle had been a professional
baseball player, and he used to coach our baseball team.
Then when I got into high school, ray father was always push-
ing sports. I played baseball in high school on the team; I
also was on the track team in high school; I was on the ten-
nis team and I was on the swimming team. But that's as far
as it went; I didn't really push to be a professional.
PHILLIPS: Even though you were the only child, it sounds
as if you had quite a few relatives in and out of the house.
Is that true?
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. My mother's side and my father's
side — my mother's side, my mother's two aunts, and her
uncle. The two aunts were never married--three aunts,
rather, were never married — and I was sort of a favorite
with them. And my father's side, his sister was married
and had several children, so there were more children on
my father's side than on my mother's side. I had a ten-
dency to enjoy my mother's side rather than the German
side; they were a little more interesting, cultured, a
little more finesse about eating and so on. Although my
father's side, they had the packing house, and the food
was like German art--quite heavy.
PHILLIPS: Tell me some more about your father. How old
were you when he died?
WOELFFER: He died in 1946. I don't remember exactly when
it was, but I remember the day he died because it was on
August the eleventh, which was the same date, many years
later, that Jackson Pollock died. So I must have been in
my early thirties when he died, about 1946--I'm sure that's
when he died.
PHILLIPS: And you'd already started your career as a
WOELFFER: I'd left home about five years before that. Five
years before, I left home and was married.
PHILLIPS: How were you getting along with your father
during that period?
WOELFFER: When I left home, it was quite a relief to get
out of the house because we weren't getting along at all,
but later on when my mother left him and he was alone and
became ill, we were quite close — the last year of his life.
PHILLIPS: Your mother left your father?
WOELFFER: My mother left him about four or five years
before he died.
PHILLIPS: And then you became closer with him when he was
living by himself.
WOELFFER: Yes, quite close, until we had to take him to
the hospital, where he died.
PHILLIPS: And was that, do you suppose, because you were
older and could see this in more perspective or were
feeling sorry for him . . . ?
WOELFFER: He was much softer and so on ... .
PHILLIPS: They often say that artists seem to relate
pretty well to their mothers and have a harder time with
their fathers. [laughter]
WOELFFER: That is right.
PHILLIPS: Fits your case.
WOELFFER: Right. And I found it with the people with whom
I was going to school, and also the other students.
PHILLIPS: I suppose part of that is because you're talking
about male students and because art making, especially then,
was not considered a kind of macho, conventional thing to
WOELFFER: No, it wasn't. And then most fathers always
think in terms of making a living. Where's the money
coming from? who's going to take care of you? and how are
you going to take care of yourself? And in those days
they didn't have the galleries like they have today. In
fact, when we were in art school, we never thought of
having an exhibition. We only thought that the impres-
sionists and Picasso and Matisse had exhibitions. In
Chicago, especially--in Chicago there were just maybe three
art galleries, and they showed only the early twentieth-
century masters, the impressionist painters.
PHILLIPS: When you were growing up as the only child, did
you feel lonely? Did you feel a little special and dif-
ferent from the other children?
WOELFFER: No, not at all. I had many friends. Wherever
we moved, I always had a lot of friends. I never felt
lonesome at all. I thought it was kind of special to be
the only one. Whereas my colleagues, my friends, they had
brothers and sisters--they were always fighting. One was
getting this and the other wasn't getting that, and so on.
PHILLIPS: Let's go into your high school period and then
from there into what happened to you next.
WOELFFER: That was rather disastrous. My father natu-
rally wanted me to go to technical school, which is all
boys, so I enrolled in Lane Tech High School, which is on
the Near Northwest Side of Chicago. It was quite a rough
school, and we studied mechanical drawing, manual training.
casting, welding, etc. I wanted to have some subjects
that I had an interest in, so I did take an art course
which was quite minor. The teacher had you copy drawings
out of books. But I had a high interest in music from my
grandfather, so I joined the first group of the band and
studied clarinet. And if you studied a band instrument,
you also had to take up an orchestra instrument. I tried
to figure which would be the simplest one, so I chose the
bass fiddle. So I played in the third orchestra with the
bass fiddle and played in the second band with the clari-
A very strange thing happened. About five years ago
at Chouinard Art Institute in the music department, they
engaged a man who was the head of the Atlanta Symphony
Orchestra, and I went up to him and I said, "You don't
remember me, but I studied bass fiddle under you in high
school." It was [Henry] Sopkin, who's the brother of the Sopkin
who's the head of the Pro Arte Quartet in New York.
I went out for track and swimming and tennis, but I
lasted about two months on the team, due to my grades —
which were not too good, and you had to keep a certain
grade average to be on the team. I joined the ROTC ; I
was a lieutenant in the ROTC. I guess I liked the uniform
or something. And I met some interesting people there;
three or four of them spent most of their life--if they're
still alive--in state prison. It was an Italian neighbor-
hood, and there were some real rough ' uns in there. And
you joined them, or else. So I got in with a gang of
fellows there, and we used to forget study hall cards and
everything else. And it was so nice not to attend classes.
So this went on for about a month — I don't know what we
did. We'd go to theaters downtown, and one day my mother
said, "Son, are you going to school today?" I said, "What
do you mean?" She said, "Well, you haven't been there
one month." So I went to school, and the principal called
me in there with my father. So the principal said, "He
has more of a flair for the arts — music, drawing. Why
don't you take him out of technical school and send him
to a coeducational high school?" Which we did, and I went
to Lakeview High School, which was closer to where we lived.
I could walk to that high school. And they had an old
fogey drawing teacher there, and I joined the orchestra
there, and it was a much nicer experience.
PHILLIPS: Had you met any girls up until this time?
WOELFFER: Not really. No, no--there was a girl in the
neighborhood. After school, I worked as a clerk at the
A&P Store, and there was a girl I had sort of a crush on.
She was fatherless and motherless; she lived with her two
older brothers who were decorators. I got to know them
quite well, and I became sort of one of the family.
In the high school, somebody had a Ford convertible,
which was really something to have in high school in those
days. I think there were only three people who had auto-
mobiles, but this boy's father was a friend of my mother's
family, on that side. They were in the undertaking busi-
ness. And one day he came to me and he said, "We would
like to invite you to become a member of the fraternity,
our fraternity." I forget the name of it. Well, that's
quite an honor to be asked into a fraternity. So I said
fine. So I became a pledge and went to about four meetings.
I had to make a couple of paddles, and it seems to me now
they must have been sadists--they used to beat my ass off
with those paddles. I finally told them what they could do
with their fraternity, and I left.
I was in third-year high school, and I felt I had had
enough of it. I wanted to draw and paint, so I quit high
school, which flipped my father and mother. But I went to
work at a scarf-designing studio and saved enough money to
go to art school. I went to night school, art school--!
could afford to do that. And then the World's Fair came
along in 1933, and I got a job selling ice cream cones at
the World's Fair for the World's Fair Ice Cream Company,
which was a subsidiary of the Polly Tea Room in Chicago
and the Swiss Ice Cream Company, I guess it was. And I
met a fellow who used to come around all the time to the
stand and said, "You could make a little more money than
you're making here." And I said, "How?" Well, it was
the second stem of a gang. And we worked for them. We
used to bring liquor into the World's Fair, sell it to
the Streets of Paris.
PHILLIPS: Was it during Prohibition?
WOELFFER: It was during Prohibition. Roosevelt was just
coming in with the NRA. Beer was the first thing that was
legalized, but this was just before that. And then after
the World's Fair, a couple of these characters said, "Let's
go into something a little bigger; we'll be sponsored by
the organization." And we opened up an office downtown,
right across the street from the City Hall — had a telephone
business, providing liquor. And that went on for six
months until . . .
PHILLIPS: What did that involve?
WOELFFER: Getting liquor from the mob, and we got a cer-
tain cut off of what we sold.
PHILLIPS: You did make more money than at the ice cream
WOELFFER: Yeah. My father's business was absolutely
nowhere. There was no real estate business. So I supported
my mother and father that whole year.
PHILLIPS: Did they know what you were doing?
WOELFFER: Yes. It didn't make any difference. And then
a couple of fellows came into the organization from New
York, and they walked in, and when they took their coats
off, they were wearing sidearms. Up to this point, this
was a clean, nice, legitimate business, with no trouble,
no problems. Then that got a little bit too sick for me,
and somehow I just resigned, and they allowed me to resign
without any problems, which is quite rare. Maybe because
of my age or something.
PHILLIPS: How old were you then? About nineteen?
WOELFFER: About nineteen, twenty. And so I left that
business. I had a nice pot of money set aside which
enabled me to put down the following year for the first
year of art school. And then my money ran out and I found
out that there was a possibility of working as a janitor
at the Art Institute, where you dust and mop the floors
and everything for your tuition, and I did that for two
and a half years .
PHILLIPS: You started art school at the Chicago Art Insti-
WOELFFER: Yeah. I think that was 1935 I started there.
PHILLIPS: You worked part-time as a janitor to pay your
WOELFFER: Yeah, we'd get to school at six in the morning
and work till nine in the morning as a janitor. And at
lunchtime I had a job bussing dishes in the restaurant;
that way I'd get my lunch paid for.
PHILLIPS: Why don't you tell me something about your
classes at the Art Institute, the people you began meeting,
because it must have been a real change for you, a new
WOELFFER: Yeah, it really was. At the time I started,
there was a dear friend that got me on to the janitor
force; his name was Arthur Osver, who now teaches at
St. Louis University. He became, in the early forties, one
of the leading painters in America. He was on every cover
of Art Digest and Art News , and he won the Pepsi-Cola prize,
and he won all the prizes. And today you don't hear much
about Arthur, but he is a dear friend of mine; he got me
onto the janitor force. And Edgar Ewing , a local painter
out there, had just received the Edward L. Ryerson award
of a $2,000 traveling fellowship. In those days, $2,000
was probably like $8,000 or $10,000 today. The Art Insti-
tute was in combination with the Goodman Theatre, and I
remember sitting in the cafeteria with a young, up-and-
coming actor, sort of a character actor who turns out to
be Karl Maiden. And there was a John Hubbard who was
sent out to Hollywood. I don't know of any other painters
of that period going to school who I've ever read about or
heard about since. As you know, the fatality is fantastic.
PHILLIPS: What were you all interested in as you started
out as beginners there?
WOELFFER: I was first interested in illustration, and that
went by the boards in the first week, when the teacher
showed us the Chester Dale collection. At that particular
time, Chester Dale had loaned his collection from the
National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to the Art Institute;
there were these fabulous Picasso and Matisse paintings.
And I said, "That's where I want to be." That's all I
knew. I didn't understand what was happening. The art
teachers, in those days, said, "You study from the model.
You paint the model." Never mind what's in the museiam.
Never mind this stuff." And in my second year, I got a job
hanging exhibitions for Katharine Kuh, who had a gallery
in the Diana Court Building in Chicago. The Diana Court
Building was a new building, and in the lobby they had a
beautiful water fountain by Carl Milles, the sculptor. And
the owner of the building thought it would be quite pres-
tigious for the building to have an art gallery, so they
gave Katharine Kuh an art gallery on the mezzanine floor.
To help support herself, she also had art history classes
in the back of her gallery, because the kind of pictures
she was showing were not selling too much. She showed
Paul Klee and [Alexei] Jawlensky and Picasso classical
drawings and [Alexander] Archipenko and, you know, she had
a [Joan] Miro show. I hung a Miro show for her. She got
letters and phone calls: if she ever had a shov/ like that
again, they'd smash the windows of ner gallery.
PHILLIPS: Was she a big influence on you?
WOELFFER: Quite a big influence.
PHILLIPS: Things she talked about and what she knew.
WOELFFER: Yeah, very definitely. Because I'd unpack
the boxes of pictures and I'd hang them on a wall, and she
would tell me about them, you know. And I got more there
than I did in the formal art history classes in the Art
Institute. They never seem to get out of the Renaissance
when you study art history, for some reason.
PHILLIPS: What did you and the other students talk about?
What kind of bull sessions went on?
WOELFFER: We would argue, and we'd even get into fist-
fights up in the gallery when they'd have the national or
international exhibitions, you know. It was quite a vital
sort of thing, and a lot of the kids were not from Chicago,
and they'd . . .
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE TWO
FEBRUARY 26, 1976 and MARCH 4, 1976
PHILLIPS: V^e were talking about your years at the art
school at the Chicago Art Institute, from 1935 through '37.
So you want to tell me more about what went on during that
WOELFFER: In order to be accepted, I submitted my work
that I had been doing in evening school and was accepted
to day school. The first year was figure drawing, design,
and composition--no oil painting. My teachers were
Kathleen Blackshear, who was teaching beginning composi-
tion; and a Mr. Cowan, who was teaching design, which was
then a prerequisite to get into the School of Drawing and
Painting; and Kenneth Shopen , who was my life-drawing
teacher. And those first years, they were quite crowded,
and I met some of the people in the first year whom up to
now had not been very close friends of mine, not living
where I did, but coming from other states. And I liked
life drawing, I liked composition, but the design class was
lettering and such matters as that, which I didn't have
too much interest in. In fact, the teacher said that I
designed like a designer, but the execution was like that
of an easel-painter — pretty rough. After one year there,
I was admitted to the School of Drawing and Painting, which
was then called Upper School. And I painted still life
with Kathleen Blackshear, and drew, did life drawing with
a man by the name of Edmond Giesbert, who was a very fine
drawing teacher and encouraged one to emulate the drawings
of Matisse and the line drawings of Picasso, and you could
do quite a bit of experimentation in his class. And I
also had art history; art history was taught by Helen
PHILLIPS: Now, that's a famous name.
WOELFFER: Yeah, the authoress of Art Through the Ages .
And after three hours of janitorial work, and then going
into a dark room looking at boring Renaissance slides in
the dark, I would constantly be falling asleep and falling
off my chair, being very tired from getting up at five
in the morning. My grades in art history were not too
good; I just made it by there. Seemed like we never got
out of the Renaissance. Katherine Blackshear was a very
stimulating person who would very often take us on gallery
tours to look at the modern paintings, which was quite
exciting. After one year in the foundation class, I went
to the third year with — there were only two painting
teachers: one was Boris Anisfeld, and the other one was
Louis Rittman, and they both had their various favorite
students. And it seemed like more people received travel-
ing fellowships from Boris Anisfeld 's class than did [those] in
Louis Rittman's class. Everybody told me to get into
Boris Anisfeld's class, if he accepted me. Boris Anisfeld
and Louis Rittman would shake hands once a year — that's
in the fall, when they got back from summertime vacation,
and that's the first and last time they would speak to
each other for the whole year. From nine to twelve we
had one pose in drawing class, one piece of charcoal paper for
the whole week. We had to make one complete charcoal
drawing of the one pose .
PHILLIPS: From the nude model.
WOELFFER: Nude model. And he would come in on Friday.
And we'd have horses we sat on, the tall ones in the back
room. And in the front of the room, the horses were
smaller so you could look over the people's heads in front
of you. Boris Anisfeld would come in Friday morning and
start in the front row. And the student would get up,
and he'd sit down, and you could hear the charcoal snap-
ping where he'd be correcting the bone structure and the
muscle structure of the model, and he would do that on
each person's drawing for the whole morning. Boris
Anisfeld came to the Art Institute for a summer session
and remained there for several years until his retirement,
about six years ago, when he was something like eighty
years old. I liked his paintings; he was never known for
his paintings. His background was with Diaghilev doing
costumes and stage sets for the Russian ballet.
Was he Russian?
He was Russian, yes.
He was foreign?
He was foreign. He had black bobbed hair, and
he had a black beard.
PHILLIPS: What did you think of him as a teacher?
WOELFFER: We were terrified of him. He was a very good
teacher, but we were sort of terrified of him.
PHILLIPS: What do you think of art school for art
students? I suppose they've changed so since then.
WOELFFER: They've changed, and I think they're good for
some people and not good for other people. Most of the
painters of the twentieth century we know, early twentieth
century, never set foot in an art school. They studied
art looking at works in the museum. I think that one
advantage of studying at the Art Institute of Chicago
was the fact that they had this fantastic collection up-
stairs , and I think we learned more there and more from
other students than we did from the teachers.
PHILLIPS: Do you think that another kind of teacher than
the one you've been describing, one who was more permis-
sive and more supportive, would have been more helpful to
WOELFFER: No, I had the balance. I had the balance. In
the first year, I had this looseness, and then the
tightening up in the next year. And then in the third
year he had us be a little bit looser, but there was
always the discipline. He felt that when you had disci-
pline you could have much more freedom, which I believe
in. And I don't think it destroyed me at all, although
I would like to have had a teacher talk about contemporary
paintings. I asked him once about an exhibition of Miro
that was on at the Arts Club; he says, "Never mind that
stuff. You study from the model." He said, "You look
at Titian, you look at Tintoretto." And he was quite a
person. I got to know him after I left art school much
better than I did when I was in art school because many
years later I lived across the street from him, and he
used to come over to see me. He used to say, "Woelffer,
you still paint like you're painting a barn." He's a
wonderful man. When he'd come to sit down at your board —
he, as I say, had black bobbed hair and a black beard,
and he just reeked of garlic, all the time, and then we
had him in the afternoon. In the afternoon we had a
painting we would draw from position. He would work a
half hour posing the model with costume, or whatever,
and drapery, and then the students would draw out of a
hat a number, and number one would pick the position he
wanted, and number two would pick the position he wanted.
and so on, until everybody had their spot. And we painted
the model life-si ze--and this would be one pose, every
afternoon, for one month. And he wanted the drawing,
the painting, to be beautifully painted, very loose at
the same time. It wasn't a matter of copying the figure,
but it was getting paint quality into the thing. So we
did that. I did that for a year and a half with Boris
In the meantime we had an organization called the
Art Students League where twice a year we would submit
work, and we would have outside painters come in and jury
the work, and it was pretty free — we could submit whatever
we wanted to. And it seemed at night when we got home,
that's when we painted the kind of paintings we were
really interested in. This is when the argument and the
discussion would take place amongst the various students.
PHILLIPS: What kind of paintings were those you painted?
WOELFFER: I didn't know what I was doing, but I was
enjoying it. Very loose, sort of colorful, nonf igurative
paintings. I wish at this time I had just stayed there
with them. Might have been interesting to see what would
have developed. They used to have a Chicago Show, the
American Show, and the International Show. The Interna-
tional Show was every two years. One year it was oil
painting, and the next year it was watercolor painting.
The Chicago Show was a juried show by Chicago artists
and artists who lived in the radius or vicinity of 100
miles of Chicago; and the American Show was partially
juried and partially invited. And students were not
supposed to submit to any of these shows. The Interna-
tional Watercolor Show, I think they took about 3
pictures out of 5,000, and the rest of the show was
invited from artists all over the world. And our first-
year painting teacher would take us around on field trips
to the park and to the stockyards to sketch, and I made
a painting from one of these tours we made. And I framed
and matted it and submitted it to the International
Watercolor Show, and I got a letter saying that it was
accepted by the jury. I think Matisse was on the jury,
and [Andre] Marchand from Paris, and somebody from
Germany was on the jury. If I'm not mistaken--! don't
seem to have the catalog- Anyway, it's an international
jury. And when word got around school that I was in the
International Watercolor Show, the dean came down to
class and stopped the activity in the class, and he said,
"Woelffer, you have no right submitting a painting to
the International Watercolor Show or any show. You're
just a first-year student, and I don't think that's right
at all. Here our teachers submitted work, and they're
not in the exhibition, and nobody's in the exhibition.
Our fourth-year students submitted, and they're not in
the exhibition, and I don't think you should be in it.
You should withdraw your work." And I said, "The hell
with you. " So I was not very popular with the fourth-year
students after that. [laughter]
PHILLIPS: By this time, you must have had some aspira-
tions for yourself, some ambitions, and . . .
WOELFFER: Well, I wasn't thinking of what was going to
happen when I got out of art school. All I knew is I
wanted to be a painter, and I didn't dare to think what
was going to happen when art school was over with. After
the second year in art school, I received a work scholar-
ship to the Art Institute summer school in Saugatauk,
Michigan, where Francis Chapin, who was ray teacher in
printmaking at the Art Institute, had the painting class.
Saugatauk, Michigan, was just across from Chicago, across
Lake Michigan, a beautiful little town off of the main
highways. It was the summer school. There were three
students every year who would do dishes and serve to the
summer school students, many of whom were older people,
many of them teachers going to summer school in order to
gain extra credit. I did that for two sioramers, which was
a very wonderful experience. I got a lot of work done.
And in the third year of the Art Institute, you were then
permitted to submit your work to a jury for their yearly
traveling fellowship awards, which enabled one to go over
to Europe and work for a year or two. My friend Arthur
Osver received one the year before, and his girlfriend,
Ernestine Betsburg — whom he's still married to, a wonder-
ful painter--received one the following year and went
over to France to see Arthur, where they were married.
You had to submit schoolwork, classwork, plus outside
work, and I submitted my figurative paintings, figure draw-
ings, and work I did on the outside. It was in this
particular year that the school of the Art Institute of
Chicago was made a member of the North Central Association
of Schools of Design and Art. When they read my applica-
tion for a traveling fellowship, I was — what would you
say? — disqualified because I had no high school diploma.
So it was at that particular time, I felt no need to spend
another year in art school. It was in the height of the
Depression. So I left art school, and I applied for the
WPA Federal Art Project.
PHILLIPS: What was going on with you personally during
this period? How was your family faring?
WOELFFER: Not too well. We were living in an apartment
that a colleague of ray father owned, so he gave us free
rent. And my father's insurance business was starting to
pick up slightly, but there was beginning to grow more and
more tension between me and my father. The idea of being
an illustrator had left a long time ago, and I was paint-
ing some pretty far-out paintings in relation to what my
father thought, and so that became a tension. As soon
as I got on the Federal Art Project, with my first pay-
check, I went out, and I rented a small studio on the
Near North Side of Chicago and left home.
PHILLIPS: You had a lot of close friends then, didn't
WOELFFER: I had many close friends. There was Arthur
Osver, some other school associates, some who are still
here and many of them who are not here.
PHILLIPS: You had some girlfriends?
WOELFFER: Not really. We would find some now and then,
[laughter] but not really. We were all dedicated to work-
ing, painting, all the time. We'd go out with a model
once in a while, and that's about all.
PHILLIPS: Well, tell me about the WPA arts program. I
know that was awfully important to the artists of this
country during that period.
WOELFFER: Yes. There was a fellow by the name of Bob
Wolf, and Norman MacLeish, the brother of Archibald
MacLeish, who were what they call unclassified people on
the WPA. They were the head supervisors. They were un-
classified, as they were both very wealthy, and they were
not on in a relief measure. In a sense, they didn't get
a salary, but they donated their time doing this. I
submitted my work, and I was accepted, and you could paint
any way you wanted to paint. They gave you a canvas and
paints every month, ninety-four dollars and a model if you
needed a model. And that was just wonderful. I stayed
on there until 19-. . . .
PHILLIPS: About a year, I guess, until 1939, when you
went into the army.
WOELFFER: The government wanted to know if I would go to
East St. Louis and try to set up a community art center
there, partially supported by the businessmen and partially
supported by the government. And I said I didn't care to,
and they said, "Well, there's no alternative. We're going
to send you there." So another friend of mine and I went —
I think it was 1939 — down to East St. Louis, and we
rented a stall, and we put up traveling exhibitions of the
work of the WPA artists. The only sympathy we got in
East St. Louis were the people of the central trades
union, who were quite interested. And there was a youth
organization, where we held some classes. The main
businessmen of East St. Louis had their businesses in
East St. Louis, but they lived in St. Louis proper because
East St. Louis was known as one of the hellholes of
Illinois. And we had this exhibition. I gave lectures
and demonstrations around the community, and I remember
there was a girl that used to come in, nearly every other
afternoon, quite beautiful; and she used to drive up in,
I recall, a beautiful white convertible Packard and used
to come in and talk to me about all the paintings. She
loved painting very much. And about five o'clock she said
she had to go to work. After meeting her several times,
I was curious what she did, and she was a prostitute in
one of the local brothels, made quite a bit of money. Very,
very nice, and we became quite good friends. Nothing like
that--but just friends, talking about art, and she intro-
duced me to her girlfriends, and so on.
I was in East St. Louis for a year when some fellow
came around to the students in our class, and he was try-
ing to sell flying lessons because that was part of the
government program. And he told me, "Well, come on, any-
way. We'll take you for a ride." And I went out and took
a ride in a Piper Cub. I got to like it very much, so I
started to take flying lessons on my time off, and after
eight hours, which he said was quite rapid, he said,
"I'm not going to be in here this time. You go yourself."
And I went up, and I soloed--! had my hours of soloing,
and I had to go through spins and stalls and all that.
And I thought this was a very nice prerequisite for the
war, which was about to come about, because right next door
to the Curtis Airport that I was flying out of ... .
I flew between Curtis Airport and Lambert Field in
St. Louis. And at that time we didn't have any radios in
the small planes, and when you landed at Lambert Field,
you had to look in all directions--because in those days
the transport planes had priority, and if you were in
their way, that wouldn't make any difference: they'd
come right into you. So I used to go there at least twice
a week and fly back to East St. Louis, and right next door
to Curtis Field was Parks Air College, where boys were
training to become pilots in the Second World War. So
when I came back to Chicago after a year there, they
transferred us, the painters, into a division of map-
making, where we had to do maps for the Geodesic Survey
of Washington, D.C., compiling maps. There were no maps
yet, of North Africa or any of these places, with any
airports on it.
PHILLIPS: You were actually inducted into the army, then?
WOELFFER: No, no, not at this time. I went to the air
force. They were wanting pilots, so I went to the air
force, and I was again immediately rejected because I had
no college education. In order to be a pilot, you had to
have a college . . .
PHILLIPS: No high school degree.
WOELFFER: And I said, "Well, what has that got to do with
flying?" I said, "Here's my license. I soloed
in eight hours. I can fly as good as anybody." Well,
that didn't go over with them. They said, "If things get
really rough, maybe we'll call you someday." So I went,
and I was inducted as a civilian in the Army Geodesic Map
PHILLIPS: Yeah, you became a topographical draftsman.
WOELFFER: Draftsman, right. And I was able to leave
there after a year. Very boring, although we were doing
something, I guess, for our country, putting lights on
the map where there weren't any lights before for the
pilots flying at night over . . .
What city were you in, now?
Because there was always a discrepancy. One
map would say there's an occulting light here, and
another one said there wasn't. So some guy flying back
on a mission had that map on his lap, so I thought I could
do something a little more vital than that. One of the
fellows left, and he took a course in riveting in Pullman
Aircraft, where they were assembling wings of the C-47
transport planes. Or you could go down to South Chicago
and learn riveting, steel plate, where they were making
tanks. And I thought, well, they were paying fantastic
wages, and I thought I'd still be doing something for the
country, so why not go where there's more money. So I
took a bunch of the painters; we went down to Pullman Air-
craft and took a week's course in riveting aluminiam. And
they gave us a toolbox and sent us to the main plant,
and I worked there for a year and a half, until I was
And I went down for my physical examination. Again--
it ' s the story of my life — I was rejected, due to something
that was left over from that childhood disease I had. And
I went in, and a commander of the navy came in and saw me
and gave me the bad news that I couldn't get into the
service. He said, "I know you're a painter, and we need
people like you back here working in the culture." I
stayed back, and I went on riveting, until towards the end
of the war. Then a whole new thing came up. [Lazslo]
Moholy-Nagy was in the city. That's another story we
can . • .
PHILLIPS: All right — let's stop here.
WOELFFER: All right.
MARCH 4, 1976
PHILLIPS: Before we began talking about your experiences
with Moholy-Nagy at the Chicago Institute of Design — was
that what it was called?
WOELFFER: Well, first the New Bauhaus , then it was the
School of Design, in Chicago, and then it was the Insti-
tute of Design, which was the last and final name.
PHILLIPS: Okay. Before we go into that--and you started
teaching there in 1942 — there are a couple of questions
I'd like to ask you. Could you tell me about growing up
with jazz and modern music in Chicago? What were your
experiences with that? Because I know it's very important
to you now .
WOELFFER: My family had a very dear friend, a pianist,
who was a jazz pianist, who played around Chicago with
Jack Teagarden and several orchestras. We had an upright
piano in our house, and nobody was utilizing the piano,
so they thought it was a good idea that I might take piano
lessons with this fellow. He had a society orchestra in
Chicago — not really an out-and-out jazz band because out-
and-out jazz bands couldn't make a living around town,
so they had to make some compromises — and they played for
various functions, society dances, etc. And Freddie
Hankel used to play at the Saddle and Cycle Club in
Chicago and the Drake Hotel, and he suggested it would be
a good idea if I would take piano lessons with him. So
I studied piano on and off with him and another person
for approximately five years. And this precedes the WPA;
I would say this is 1926 or 1927. But nothing seemed to
happen. I discovered myself that as much as I enjoyed and
loved and wanted to play the piano, there was nothing
there whatsoever. So I discarded this for painting, and
that's when I started to go to Saturday school at the Art
Institute of Chicago. But all through my life after that,
there was a contact with this person and his jazz musician
friends. And I started collecting jazz sides, records,
etc., but nothing happened between me and the piano. I
made one recital, as I recall, at the Knickerbocker Hotel,
which was right across the street from the Drake Hotel,
in Chicago — not from working with Freddie Hankel, but from
another piano teacher by the name of Estelle Hill. On my
way on to Europe a few years ago on the Leonardo da Vinci ,
there was a very popular song called "Alley Cat," and I
found out later on that she'd composed this song, which
they play quite a bit on the air today. But at the
Knickerbocker Hotel Sunday afternoon recitals I recall,
I received more flowers than anybody else because I had so
many aunts and second aunts and uncles and everybody else.
But to my thinking I was quite a flop. After three bars
at the recital I stopped; I was frozen; I was cold. I
didn't know what was going on, and piano teacher had to
come up and shake me a bit to show that I was back in our
land again. And I was playing a polonaise by Chopin, and
I think that was the last time I ever touched the piano.
But anyway, I went home with just vases and vases of
flowers and bouquets and everything.
PHILLIPS: But you listened to a lot of jazz as you were
WOELFFER: As I was growing up, yes.
PHILLIPS: And to the big bands.
WOELFFER: Right. In fact, in '27, I don't know if I men-
tioned — back when I was going to Lane Tech High School,
one of the things I did when I played hookey from school
was to go to the Oriental Theatre, and this was the date
of the big bands of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, and
all these things. And then there were the smaller clubs
around Chicago. There were many boogie-woogie artists,
Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, James P. Johnson, and
they were around Chicago for many years after that, until,
oh, I'd say, the mid-forties. And Billie Holliday. I
never saw Bessie Smith. I used to go to see Fats Waller;
he used to be around Chicago a lot.
PHILLIPS: Do you relate your art making in any way to
jazz and to that kind of music?
WOELFFER: I don't see it myself. I feel it much more
than I can visualize it or say anything about it. It was
in the--well, you probably don't want me to jump too fast.
PHILLIPS: That's all right.
WOELFFER: We're now in the early forties. I was married
PHILLIPS: Do you want to tell me a little bit about
WOELFFER: No. [laughter]
PHILLIPS: Much as you want.
WOELFFER: Yes. I had left art school, I was working on
the WPA, and I met a wonderful girl who had just come back
from Italy. She had been studying two years at the Uni-
versity of Florence, Firenze. And her family brought her
back because she was becoming quite indoctrinated with
Fascism. She thought this was quite beautiful. She'd
been with flyers who used to fly in Spain for Mussolini,
and I met her in Chicago through Edgar Ewing , who was not
then married. And we became engaged. Her stepfather
was Dr. Frederick Woodward. Her father, by the way, was
a man by the name of Ernest Freund, who was a president
of the University of Chicago, who passed away several years
earlier. And Dr. Frederick Woodward, her stepfather, was
then the vice-president, under Robert Hutchins , of the
University of Chicago. They were quite conservative and
wondering how I would support their daughter. They didn't
know what I was doing at the time, and when my wife-to-be,
whose name was Emmy Lou Freund, told him that I had such a
wonderful position — I worked under the WPA art project
(these people were staunch Republicans) — they were abso-
lutely terrified. And they were against the marriage
PHILLIPS: How old were you then?
WOELFFER: That was 1940; I was born in 1914 ....
PHILLIPS: About twenty-six.
PHILLIPS: How old was she?
WOELFFER: About twenty- two.
WOELFFER: While they were away, I don't know, to New York
or to Palm Beach, we eloped. And when they returned from
their trip, they got knowledge of this from the cook,
which was another disastrous shock, her mother saying, "I
mean, of all things, to hear that my daughter got married
through the cook or the maid." But they learned to accept
me, and we used to get along quite well. In fact, Mrs.
Woodward, she and her mother, were founders of the Arts
Club of Chicago, and through them I met many prominent
people and collectors in Chicago.
PHILLIPS: Perhaps we should finish up the first marriage.
How long were you married?
So it was about five years.
About five years, and then it was all over.
Yes. That was a mistake on my part and probably
a mistake on her part. Well, anyway . . .
PHILLIPS: Did she have more conventional aspirations than
WOELFFER: No, not--I think, there was quite an influence
by her family. Anyway, I was still groping, and I had just
started teaching with Moholy-Nagy, and ....
PHILLIPS: The other thing I wanted to ask you about was
your wartime experiences. You were never actually in the
army, were you?
PHILLIPS: You worked for the army.
WOELFFER: I worked with the army.
PHILLIPS: So you didn't go overseas, and you didn't have
that basic training experience.
WOELFFER: No, no. The closest thing I had to that was
two and a half years in the 202nd Post Artillery, the
Antiaircraft Communication Division of the National Guard.
PHILLIPS: What I was going to ask you is if in retrospect,
if you had any reactions to the war years. I know for a
lot of young men, it was very traumatic when they were
drafted, but since you didn't go into basic training and
weren't sent away . . .
WOELFFER: I was quite disappointed, which I wouldn't have
been in the Vietnam War.
PHILLIPS: You were disappointed that you weren't taken
into the army.
WOELFFER: That I was not taken.
PHILLIPS: But the war years didn't have a profound effect
WOELFFER: Oh, no, not at all. No.
PHILLIPS: You didn't have any thoughts about the dis-
integration of the society, and civilization, and that kind
WOELFFER: No. Maybe the European artists. We weren't
affected at all; we've never been affected.
PHILLIPS: And for some younger Americans who did go abroad
to fight, it was a very profound experience. Since that
didn ' t happen to you . . .
WOELFFER: In fact, a whole group of us that were not
accepted, we were quite disappointed, we wanted to go over
and . . .
PHILLIPS: Well, that was very much the thing then. I
think everyone wanted to be in that war.
WOELFFER: That we were under attack. It was a completely
different thing then.
PHILLIPS: It was the unusual person who was a pacifist in
that war. It's very different now. I think we've had so
many wars that we feel differently about it. Well, let's
start in, then, with your teaching with Moholy-Nagy. It
started in 1942. You might tell me how that happened and
what he was like.
WOELFFER: I met Moholy a few times. In fact, we were so
naive, we didn't knov; who he was. We heard this
Moholy-Nagy was coming to Chicago, and we didn't know,
[laughter] We thought he might be an Oriental. There
were no books in the library at that particular time. If
there were, they were very rare, about the Bauhaus philos-
ophy, the Bauhaus school, in Weimar and Dessau, Germany.
But I had met Moholy — I think the European campaign was
over and we were still at war with Japan — and I called him
up one day. I didn't know what I was about to do for a
living because up to this point it was — after school, and
then working on the WPA art project. I was well taken
care of — I don't say "well," but I was taken care of. So
I called up Moholy-Nagy out of the clear sky one day and
asked whether he had any inquiries for anybody to teach
at his school, or maybe outside of the city. I wasn't
fussy; I wanted to work. I had to do something. And he
said, "Yes, I do. I'd like to see your work." So I
invited him over to dinner one evening, and Moholy came.
I was living two blocks west of the water tower in Chicago
in one of a group of coach houses. And we had dinner, and
he said, "Let's look at your work." And I showed him my
paintings, and he said, "Well, how would you like to come
and teach for me." So I said, "That is just absolutely
fantastic. I'd like that very much." So he said, "You
line up a curriculum of sorts for the first year, and
we'll see what we can do." So I wrote up a first-year
program and took it to him, and he said, "That's beautiful.
That's fine." And he said, "You'll come and teach four
mornings a week, and I'll pay you eighteen dollars a week."
Well, fortunately, I had quite a few war bonds stashed
away from working at Pullman Aircraft, which kept me, plus
the little pittance that I was getting for teaching. And
I had a very interesting group of students, about fifteen
students. And Moholy sort of oriented me to the philosophy
of the school. My paintings were quite loose and free
before that, and my paintings became — I wouldn't say neces-
sarily static but much more concentrated on particular
abstract forms and abstract shapes.
PHILLIPS: What kind of paintings, what kind of contempo-
rary paintings, were you looking at, at that point?
WOELFFER: At that point, I was still very much concerned
with Picasso and Miro. And then the Bauhaus paintings,
which were quite flat and quite concrete. But Helion
arrived at the school at that time--he'd just been released
from a prison camp in Europe, Jean Helion--and we had a
show for Jean Helion. And while I was there I met Matta
[Echaurren] , the surrealist painter, and, one evening,
[Fernand] Leger. Leger was a refugee living in New York,
and Leger came to Chicago, and Moholy was anxious for him
to see his paintings. Leger said, "I will show my paint-
ings in your school, if you guarantee the sale of two
paintings. " So I hung the Leger show and met Leger when
he came. Moholy guaranteed two sales. Moholy bought a
still life of Leger for $300, and Walter and Pussy
[Elizabeth] Paepcke bought a huge, beautiful Leger painting
for, I think, $800 or $900, which today are quite price-
less. And Leger was not impressed at all with Moholy ' s
paintings. In fact, he didn't — or didn't try to — speak
any English. And one evening, Moholy had some of the
trustees to the school to meet Leger, and Leger was very
unimpressed with the whole thing. And Moholy thought we
should move this show off the ground and go someplace and
have a drink, and Moholy, naturally, looked to me to find
out where there was a suitable place to have a drink.
PHILLIPS: During Prohibition?
WOELFFER: No, this is after. This is about '41. So we
all got in a taxicab and went to a bar on Oak Street.
We walked into this bar, and there was this jukebox blaring
some kind of music out, and some lady went up to the bar-
tender and said, "Pardon me, sir, but could you please turn
the music off? L^ger is here." The bartender looked up
and he didn't know Leger from a bale of hay, but, anyway,
he turned the .... And we sat and had a wonderful
PHILLIPS: Was it Leger who didn't speak English?
Leger didn't speak English at all.
How did Moholy-Nagy come to Chicago?
Well, Moholy-Nagy had been through the United
States. I think he taught a course at Mills College, He
knew New York. But Moholy said, "If we can break Chicago
and organize a school in Chicago, then we can do it any-
place in the world." Because Chicago's a very sort of
tough place for art. Everybody left Chicago to buy art.
They go to New York to buy art. Moholy had a strong
feeling about Chicago and felt if we could do it here,
then the problems would be solved. I remember I took a
walk with Leger one day, and he loved Chicago. He loved
the fact that the bridges went up; they weren't swinging
bridges. They went up. They lifted up, and it reminded
him of a great bird lifting its wings while the ships
went by. He loved the dime-store windows. At that time,
Kresge ' s , Woolworth ' s--they used to pack as much as they
could into the windows, and he loved this because it
reminded him very much of a film he did earlier called
Ballet Mecanique . I liked Leger; he was a wonderful guy.
Even if we didn't speak the same language, we understood
each other. One evening, we had a school dance, a school
party, and somebody walked in and Moholy introduced me to
him. And his name was Man Ray. Man Ray was on his way
from New York to Los Angeles, where I think he was going
to marry Julie, his present wife. And we had a long,
wonderful evening together. And Man Ray said, "You know,
I just can't stand Chicago. It's terrible. The only reason
I'm here is that we have to change trains in Chicago."
This was the time long before the large commercial flights,
so he just happened to be in Chicago for that evening and
decided to come over and see the school . And that was my
first contact with Man Ray.
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE ONE
MARCH 4, 1976
PHILLIPS: Did you see Man Ray subsequently? Did you run
into him in California?
WOELFFER: I ran into him out here, for his show, I guess
it was — what? — 1963?
PHILLIPS: Oh, the show that was at the Los Angeles County
Museum, that Jules Langsner did.
WOELFFER: I met Matta in Chicago, and he was very stimulat-
ing, and he came to visit the school. And Moholy, when he
first came over, I remember he was trying to raise money--
I forget the name of the organization. Then Walter Paepcke
came along with the Container Corporation [of America] and
was a big backer of the school. But Moholy--I remember
his English was not too good, and he was showing some slides
one day at a women's club in order to get people stimulated
and interested in backing the Institute of Design. He was
showing slides of photographs and paintings and various
things, and all of a sudden, on the screen came a slide of
a photograph with a fence with a lot of graffiti on it.
And Moholy said, "Look how sharp the photograph is. You
can see the spelling on the fence — F-U-C-K: foush, fash,
whatever it says."
There are many anecdotes about Moholy. One day I
remember he asked me, when we moved to a new building,
to design the color of the walls and the doors and floors
of the school. And he said, "Come back in one week." And
I came back in one week, and he said, "Ah--you have the
color scheme." I said, "Yes." He said, "That's fine.
The doors will be gray and the walls will be white."
Do you think that he was a great teacher?
A great influence.
A great influence.
And not only on you, but on everyone in the
WOELFFER: He used to come to school on the streetcar — they
had streetcars in those days — with his homburg hat and his
black overcoat with a clerical collar and a workman's black
tin pail. He could not afford the time to go out to lunch,
and he'd eat his own lunch at his desk when he was writing
or making lectures or designing. He was designing at that
time the new offices of the Parker Pen Company of Janesville,
Wisconsin. He said, "See that little niche in the wall?"
I said, "Yes." He said, "They don't know it, but in there
there's going to be a Moholy sculpture put in that little
PHILLIPS: What made him such a great teacher?
WOELFFER: Because he wasn't closed to anything. He was
a completely open man. He had a great, burning desire in
architecture, painting, and sculpture, literature, music —
the whole thing. He was a complete kind of man.
PHILLIPS: He was very turned on by all of these things
and wanted to pass it on to others.
WOELFFER: Yes. I remember I went to school one day, and
I said, "Moholy, I have to leave." I thought I would try
New York. So we had an auction, and I raised some funds,
and I was going to leave the school and go off and try New
York City. And Moholy said, "You know, that'll be the end.
You cut it off here, you cut it off. That'll be all. You
can never come back." And I was quite sad about that. And
that evening, about eleven o'clock, the bell rang, and
here was Moholy, who came up, and he said, "I didn't quite
mean it that way. Really, let's say you were a prince
going out into the world to explore other areas, and if
you do not succeed, you're always welcome to come back to
the school." He was a very sweet man.
PHILLIPS: Did you go to New York then?
WOELFFER: I went to New York. And it was just too soon
after the war, and it was absolutely impossible to find
anything. I was able to find a space on a fifth floor
walk-up over the Manhattan Bridge with a bathtub in the
kitchen, and I looked at that and related it to my coach
house with a little backyard and one tree in Chicago and
said no. At this particular time, this was just 1945,
and I'd married Dina, and we both moved together to New
PHILLIPS : When were you in the show at the Guggenheim
[Museum]? Was it around that period, or later? And
there was also a Whitney [Museum] show sometime in there.
WOELFFER: I was quite late in showing in New York. I think
my first show in New York was about 1945 at the Artists
Gallery — my friend Frederica Beer Monti. It was a non-
profit gallery operated by a man by the name of Hugh Stix.
It was not a commercial gallery. The gallery--I think they
first showed [Adolph] Gottlieb and [Robert] Motherwell and
many of the painters. And what they did, they would show
your work with the hopes that a commercial gallery would
then come along and take you on. Hugh Stix was in some
kind of business, and he kept this gallery going in order
to find commercial galleries for young, up-and-coming
artists. But the Guggenheim exhibition came about much
later, came about in the fifties. I think it was in the
early fifties, when the Carnegie [Museum] and the
Guggenheim--all these shows came about. I was quite late
coming on to these national and international exhibitions.
PHILLIPS: You said that you had married Dina. What year
were you . . . ?
Married in 1945. You met her in Chicago?
Met her in Chicago.
At the school?
No, I met her at a party. A month or two later
we married, and we stayed in Chicago until 1947--no,
excuse me, 1949. Buckminster Fuller was a part of the
Institute of Design, and we were going to move to Yucatan
in 1949, and Bucky Fuller said, "Well, it's on your way to
Yucatan. Why don't you stop at Black Mountain College in
North Carolina? I'm conducting a summer school there."
This is the school that [Josef] Albers and Anni Albers
founded. So I said, "That sounds fine." So we stopped
off on our way to Yucatan. We drove, closed up our house
in Chicago. In fact, we were evicted out of our coach
house. Somebody else bought the house.
PHILLIPS: I remember George Rickey saying that he came
to visit you in that house in Chicago. It was before you
left for Mexico?
WOELFFER: Fred Wight.
PHILLIPS: Fred Wight came, too.
WOELFFER: Right. And we stopped at Black Mountain to teach
for the summer. Dina taught photography, and I was teach-
ing painting. And Herbert Bayer's and Joella Bayer's son
was there at that time, along with a wonderful poet by the
name of Charles Olson, who became a very close friend of
PHILLIPS: How long was that summer teaching position?
WOELFFER: That was a two-month summer, and we were about
to leave for Yucatan. There was a young couple by the
name of Vashi and Veena from India, who were at the
Institute of Design, and Buckminster Fuller had them for
the summer session. Veena was getting her doctor's degree
in town planning, and Vashi was getting his degree in
architecture, and they were both over here from India. But
before they came to the school, they danced in New York
for about a year in order to raise enough money to stay
here because their government would not allow them to take
any money out of India. So we were about to leave for
Yucatan in our AC [Acedes] English tour car, and Vashi and
Veena said, "Well, on your way, why don't you stop off in
New York?" — which was just the opposite direction. It was
the summer of 194 9 when the big Life magazine story came
out by Clement Greenberg asking whether Jackson Pollock
was the greatest artist in America. Vashi and Veena knew
Jackson and Lee [Krasner] very well, so they coaxed us to
drive them to New York. The car, being a tourer, had two
little jump seats in the back, which were perfect for
Vasha and Veena. Veena had a bag full of a dozen saris;
Vasha didn't take up much room. So we started off for New
York via Washington, D.C. We arrived in New York and
iiranediately went to Springs, New York, where we stayed v/ith
the Pollocks for several days. Pollock was still in some
kind of a stupor from this big story on him. Through them
we met Alfonso Ossorio, the painter, who previous to this
story in Life magazine was buying Jackson Pollock. Betty
Parsons was there, and it was a quite interesting weekend.
And then we immediately left and drove down to North
Carolina on our way to New Orleans, where we then took a
plane to Yucatan.
PHILLIPS: When you were at the Black Mountain school,
were there other interesting faculty people there?
WOELFFER: Yes, there was a scientist by the name of
Goldowski who was there, and there was Ann Rice, librarian,
and Dan Rice, the painter, who showed in New York, who was
a close friend of Mark Rothko. A year previous to that,
de Kooning had been there. The year after I left, Ben
Shahn and Robert Motherwell were there. But I came down
with the Buckminster Fuller group.
PHILLIPS: At that time, the Chicago Institute of Design
and Black Mountain were places where things were really
happening, weren't they?
WOELFFER: Yes. I just missed meeting Albers ; he and Anni
left the day before we arrived at Black Mountain. They'd
been there for many years, and they were on their way to
New York. It took an auction and many other things to
finance the Alberses ' move from Black Mountain to New York.
PHILLIPS: What did you think of Albers's paintings and
of Pollock's paintings and Gottlieb's — what particular
things were impressive in them?
WOELFFER: Pollock's paintings really turned me on. I
liked the spontaneity of them, the directness, the feeling
of them, whereas I enjoyed Albers's paintings like listen-
ing to a little Bach sonata or something. But when I
looked at Pollock, it was like listening to the Firebird
of Stravinsky, which was much more to my liking.
PHILLIPS: During that passage through New York, did you
go to the Museum of Modern Art?
WOELFFER: We bypassed New York City entirely and went
directly to Springs, Long Island, to stay with the
Pollocks, and when we left there we drove back the same
way and stopped in New York. I was anxious to get down
to this village in Yucatan where we were about to live
for six months.
PHILLIPS: So you got to South Carolina, and then what
WOELFFER: We Stopped there just overnight, in order to
make a transaction on another automobile which I had, and
then we drove on down to see Dina's daughter and husband
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we stayed two nights
before boarding a Pan American plane for Merida, Yucatan,
with our dog and cat.
PHILLIPS: And then how long did you stay at Merida?
WOELFFER: We were overnight at Merida, where we crated
the dog and cat up and got on a wood-burning train through
the jungles to Campeche, Yucatan.
PHILLIPS: What had decided you to go to Campeche?
WOELFFER: We had a friend in Chicago, a painter, who had
lived there for several months and had brought back some
fantastic artifacts. You had a fabulous dwelling on the
sea, and the rent was absolutely almost nothing.
PHILLIPS: It was your friend's house.
WOELFFER: He rented the house, as I was about to do, and
then we wrote several letters from there to Charles Olson,
which really flipped him on. When we came back, Charles
Olson went down there, where he did his wonderful writing.
He used to write for the Black Mountain Review and used
many of Dina's photographs of some of the artifacts we
had. He went down there and wrote, I think, the Mayan
Letters , if I'm not mistaken. Some of his finest writings
were done in Yucatan.
PHILLIPS: What was the life like down there, what you did
WOELFFER: The life was very primitive. There was no
running water. VJe had the only well in our house in the
community, and the people would line up because they had
no fresh drinking water. So we'd provide them with water.
We had nine huge rooms, a huge kitchen with a charcoal
area that burned charcoal, not really a stove, but a
large twenty- foot slab of beautiful tiles, where we would
bake and cook whatever. It's a small fishing village--
we had the largest house down there — and the fishermen
asked us if we would allow them to keep their sails on
our patio to keep them dry, to which we said yes. And
they would tiptoe in about four in the morning and get their
sails, and they'd go out to sea, and they would not return
until four, five in the afternoon, when all the towns-
people would line up on the beach and wait for the fresh
catch of fish. And our house roof would be lined with
hundreds of vultures that were waiting for the fish to
be cleaned. They'd come down and absolutely clean the
beach, absolutely spotless. And the fishermen would give
us pompano, and they'd give us casson, which is shark,
beautiful baby shark fish. And pulpo, octopus, which was
fresh. We would throw it on the grill with lime, fresh
lime, and put it on our charcoal stove.
When I was at Black Mountain, there was a Canadian
student of mine who wanted one of my paintings, but being
a Canadian, he was allowed to bring only so much money out
of Canada. So I gave him this painting and he gave me
several rolls of beautiful English linen canvas. And
Ramon Shiva sent me boxes and boxes of colors, and . . .
PHILLIPS: How did you know Shiva?
WOELFFER: I knew Ramon Shiva from Chicago, where he
manufactured his artists' colors. I met him in the early
thirties, when his casein paint was introduced at the 1933
World's Fair. He was a painter at the Art Institute and
didn't like the commercial colors, so started compounding
colors for himself. His fellow students said, "We want
to try some of the colors," and the first thing you know
he wasn't painting anymore, but he was manufacturing paint.
PHILLIPS: What were you thinking about when you were down
in Carapeche? Were you just very busy living from day to
WOELFFER: We had these nine huge rooms. The first thing
we did, we bought two hammocks. You had to sleep in a
hammock because of the scorpions. You couldn't sleep on
the floor in a bed; the scorpions are very poisonous. So
we put two hammocks on the outdoor patio, where we slept
overlooking the Gulf of Campeche. And we rented a table
and four chairs from the local cantina , and that was our
furniture. Then I went and bought a hammer and some nails.
I opened the canvas up, and I nailed canvas on every wall
in the house. And I'd go around each day painting a little
on each canvas, and this is how I did my painting. And
we'd go to town once a day; we'd take the bus and go to
Campeche. Because the village we lived in was called
Lerma, L-e-r-m-a, a very small fishing village.
Campeche, the larger city, was about fifteen minutes away
by bus. And we met the postman and some local people there
who knew this friend of mine who had lived there before
whose name was Frank Verushka, a painter. And we were just
like a continuation of Frank and his girlfriend coming down
there. And one man in the village drove a school bus; so
every Sunday morning, he'd bring the school bus up, and
we'd get in the school bus with other people in the com-
munity, and we'd drive to all the adjoining villages and
drink beer and eat cheese and pulpo , which was octopus,
which was cut up and pickled and pounded for hours to make
it very soft and pliable to chew. This was a Sunday ritual.
It was quite beautiful. Six months later, I felt it time
to leave, go back to humanity again, to Chicago.
Did you learn quite good Spanish?
Did Dina learn good Spanish?
Much more than I did.
Did it remind you, looking back, of the experi-
ences of living in Italy? Or was it much more remote?
WOELFFER: Much more remote, oh, yes, very much more remote,
Nobody spoke English where we were in Yucatan.
It was time to come back. Well, Dina had to stay with
the dog and cat, and I hitched a ride on a Panamanian
freighter that was stopping off. We met a man down there
who was in the mahogany business, and he had an LST land-
ing craft troop ship, converted to carry mahogany, and he
gave me a ride. It was a Cuban freighter, Cuban crew and
captain, flying a Panamanian flag, which meant the pay is
little but the food is great. If it had a Cuban flag and
a Panamanian entry, the food was bad but the pay was good.
But anyway, I hitched a ride. Mr. Alazar was the man's
name who was in the mahogany business; he was getting
mahogany for a lumber company in Pensacola, Florida. So
I got on at six o'clock that evening and sailed past our
house and waved at Dina and the two dogs, I left her with
about five dollars sitting there, with two nights and
three days to get through.
PHILLIPS: But you knew the fishermen would feed her.
WOELFFER: I knew they would take care of her. And I went
and got up to Pensacola, Florida, with rolls and rolls of
my paintings and boxes and boxes of . . .
PHILLIPS: Had you worked quite a bit while you were in
WOELFFER: Oh, yes, every day. And I had boxes and boxes
of Mayan artifacts, and the customs were there immediately
when I got off ship.
PHILLIPS: I wanted to ask you if you saw a lot of the
ruins when you were in Yucatan?
WOELFFER: Chich^n Itz^, Uxmal , Palenque, and all of these
PHILLIPS: That must have been quite an experience.
WOELFFER: Yeah, really. They weren't manufacturing arti-
facts at that particular time. There weren't too many
collectors collecting this material, and upon my arrival in
Pensacola, Florida, with the artifacts and the paintings, I
jumped off the ship and went to the nearest bus depot. I was
on my way to Dina ' s daughter in Baton Rouge, and I was at the
bus depot. Greyhound bus depot, waiting for a bus to go to
Baton Rouge from Pensacola. I had left Yucatan three or
four days before in a white seersucker suit, which by the
time I arrived in Pensacola, Florida, was full of rust and
dirt. I didn't have a beard at that time; I needed a shave.
When I went down there and when I came back, I always kept
a revolver in my boot, and I was picked up at the Greyhound
bus depot for vagrancy. [laughter] But I proved to them
that I was getting the hell out of Florida — I was going to
Louisiana--so they let me go with my artifacts and my
paintings. I got a bus and went up there and started on
the telephone, at her daughter's, to call people in Chicago
who earlier took paintings of mine and promised to send
payments to me v/hich they never did. I needed money to get
Dina the hell out of Yucatan. And three weeks later this
was all arranged, and I met her at Moisant Airport in New
Orleans on a Christinas Eve, where she came through a
hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico and landed with the dog
and cat. I met her with our little British AC tourer,
with only side curtains on it--which was fine down there,
but the following night we started back for Chicago from
Baton Rouge. We had the dog and the cat in the box and all
the artifacts and all the paintings in this car which is
just two seats larger than an MG.
PHILLIPS: And whatever clothes you owned at the time.
WOELFFER: Which were nothing. We started to feel the cool
of the weather when we were still in the south. We took a
motel, and a few hours later, I said to Dina, "We've slept
too long. We're ready to leave now. It's five o'clock.
We want to get on the road. " We got on the road, and in
about ten, fifteen minutes, I ran out of gas and found out
it wasn't five o'clock — but it was twenty-five minutes
after twelve. [laughter] And then it was too late, and
the car was out of gas and nobody would pick me up — I
forget the name of the place down south. But anyway, as
daylight came, I was able to hitch a ride, get gasoline.
We got in the car, and by two o'clock that morning, we
arrived back for New Year's Eve in Chicago in a real snow-
PHILLIPS: v;ith the side curtains.
WOELFFER: And my seersucker suit, and the side curtains,
Dina and the dog and cat, and we finally made it to my
mother's house. A very unforgettable experience, believe
me. That was 1950. First of the year, 1950.
PHILLIPS: And you didn't have any promises in hand for the
rest of the year, did you?
WOELFFER: Not a thing. But I immediately called up my
friends at the Institute of Design. Serge Chermayeff was
then the director of the Institute of Design. Moholy-Nagy
died just before we left Chicago. He died in 194 6. And
a friend of mine was buying an old building and remodeling
it in Chicago, and he built a beautiful, big room for me,
a lighted room, where I started conducting my own painting
classes. That spring, I received a call from Colorado
Springs, where an ex-student of mine was teaching. They
were looking for somebody to teach painting, and I was
recommended. So I took the train out to Colorado Springs,
where I was interviewed by many people, and some weeks
later, I received word that I was accepted for the position.
PHILLIPS: You v/eren ' t interested at this point in moving
to New York?
WOELFFER: No. I, for some reason, always felt nervous
being where the action is. I'm very much affected by
action, and I prefer to live off by myself in my own kind
of action. I get too involved, too emotionally disturbed
where things are happening. Like out here, I'd prefer
to live where we live rather than in Venice or someplace
where the action is. I can do my work much better.
PHILLIPS: So you visited Colorado Springs and decided to
take the position.
WOELFFER: That was great. So I went back to Chicago . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . got Dina and the dogs . . .
WOELFFER: . . . got Dina and the dogs — left the dogs and
the cat at the kennel and they flew out later on; I thought
it'd be much easier for them. We drove out. We stopped
in Minnesota to see Dina's father and then got into
Colorado Springs. One interesting phase of that: there
was a man by the name of Jan Ruttenberg, who was an archi-
tect, who claimed that he was an old buddy of [Ludwig]
Mies van der Rohe. I knew Mies van der Rohe quite well
in Chicago, and he . . .
PHILLIPS: That's right, Mies lived in Chicago, didn't he?
WOELFFER: Mies was living in Chicago, yes. He lived in
an old apartment building. He wouldn't live in one of his
own buildings. He lived in an old apartment building with
grass rugs and Chippendale furniture.
PHILLIPS: And his Paul Klees.
WOELFFER: And all his Paul Klees all over the room.
PHILLIPS: V'Jas he a good friend of Moholy's?
WOELFFER: No, not too well. That whole group, they never
PHILLIPS: Sibling rivalry.
WOELFFER: Right. Albers, and the architect--what was
his name, the architect? Gropius . No, they were all sort
of individual people. But Jan Ruttenberg said, "You know
Mies?" He didn't believe me, so he wrote Mies a letter
asking about me, and Mies van der Rohe called me up one
day and had me over and said, "Do you want this position?"
I said, "Yes, Mies." Well, he sent a three-page telegram
to Mr. Jan Ruttenberg, and after that, Mr. Ruttenberg had
nothing to say anymore.
PHILLIPS: Ruttenberg was in Colorado Springs?
WOELFFER: Yeah, he was a local architect. His daughter
is a painter.
What was it like in Colorado Springs?
It was just beautiful.
How long were you there?
Seven years, 1950 to 1957, when we left. We
rented a sort of house-apartment affair for the first two
years, and then I bought some land with a shack on it in
Austin Bluffs that Dina and I, as you know, put together
with our blood, sweat, and . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . tears. [laughter]
WOELFFER: Sore thumbs and everything else. And after it
was completely completed, ready to really enjoy, we left
in 1957 for Europe. The trustees wanted to revert back
to the school the way it was in the earlier days.
PHILLIPS: What had that been like?
WOELFFER: I don't know; it was when Boardman Robinson and
that whole group were there. And they felt there was too
much abstract art going on.
PHILLIPS: Well, when you came, who was director of the
WOELFFER: Mitch [Mitchell] Wilder was director.
PHILLIPS: Was that the first time you'd met Mitch?
WOELFFER: That was the first time, yeah. He had set up a
foundation course similar to the New Bauhaus, and they had
a fellow teaching that, and I was made head of the painting
department. In all these communities, there's the local
art groups . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . and the local support groups, and the
ladies who start the museum, and ....
WOELFFER: And I no sooner arrived in town, and they said,
"Are we gonna have to paint pictures that you don't put
picture frames on, and do they all have to be abstract
paintings?" And I said, "Gee, give me a chance to settle
down before we . . . . " But it was a wonderful seven
years, I thought. I met some wonderful people. If it
hadn't been for that, I would never have met the
Phillipses, whom I met through the Byrneses [James and
Barbara]/ and the Paul Kantors, etc.
PHILLIPS: There were some of the trustees you liked, too.
And some of the people in Colorado Springs you got to know
WOELFFER: There were the Spragues out there, who were
very nice, interested in art and music, and in fact he
played piano with a group that was organized some years
later called the Gut Bucket Seven, which was a Dixieland
jazz group, and we played for many of the functions for the
Art Center and in the community.
PHILLIPS: How long did Mitch stay there?
WOELFFER: Mitch was there till '53.
PHILLIPS: Then Jimmy Byrnes came?
WOELFFER: Then Jimmy Byrnes came.
PHILLIPS: And Jimmy came from the Los Angeles County
WOELFER: Right, right, right. Then we became very close.
And they had many of their dear friends stopping off on
their way from coast to coast whom I met, and then Jimmy
left, I think, in *55.
PHILLIPS: And then there was that famous summer when I
think we all met for the first time. Bob Motherwell was
teaching there, was he, at Colorado Springs?
WOELFFER: He taught there that summer. He came out with
his wife, Betty, and we went . . .
PHILLIPS: Had his fiftieth birthday. No, fortieth.
WOELFFER: M^ fortieth birthday, at our house. And I think
we all went to Aspen; I think we did a trip to Aspen one
weekend. Bob was quite miserable out there; he didn't
like it, for some reason.
PHILLIPS: Then Rothko was teaching at University of
WOELFFER: At Boulder. And he came out with Mel; he took
a trip up to see them one weekend. So it was quite a
coming and going of interesting people, celebrities.
PHILLIPS: And I remember, the summer that we were there,
Ynez Johnston and Rothko had just been there ....
WOELFFER: Right, and Ibram Lassaw I think was there.
PHILLIPS: And the Motherwells were there, and I think it
was Bob's fortieth birthday, and it was at the Byrneses'
WOELFFER: It was my fortieth birthday.
PHILLIPS: Your fortieth birthday.
WOELFFER: Yeah, because we just talked about that last
year at his sixtieth birthday, and he told his daughter
there, who's a beautiful young girl, "You were conceived
after a party at Emerson's fortieth birthday in Colorado
PHILLIPS: And the winters must have been long, though.
WOELFFER: They were long, especially when we were build-
ing the house. First year we didn't have an inside toilet.
We kept warm with a coal stove. The man we bought the
house from had just finished siding the whole house with
logs, half-split logs, and we were taking 'em off as fast
as we could, burning those to use to heat the house for
that first winter, which was quite rough but very nice.
Many times we were snowed in for two and three days; and,
at that time being a smoker, I would climb the walls for
This was the beginning of the sports car club of
Colorado Springs, and we started collecting all the auto-
mobiles. We had the AC and we had the Daimler, and we had
the MG, and all sorts of things. We had the rally at Aspen
in the summer. That's when we got to know the Bayers quite
well, going up to Aspen.
PHILLIPS: During this period, did you get to look at much
art, outside of the Colorado Springs Museum? The Taylor
Museum must have had an influence. The Santos, and Spanish
WOELFFER: Yeah. And of course, many weekend trips to Taos
and Santa Fe , which wasn't too far away, which was wonder-
ful. I think one of the areas I really like most in the
Southwest is around Taos and Santa Fe.
PHILLIPS: What other American painters were you following
then, or were you even looking at what other people were
WOELFFER: No, I was quite involved at that particular time-
moving to the country--with that whole series of paint-
ings I did of the birds, the whole bird series of paintings,
which lasted for a couple of years. And no, nothing from
Oh, in '53, with the Byrneses, we took a trip--my first
trip, Dina's first trip — to California. We'd never been
out here before, which made quite an impression--the fact
that there was greenery all year 'round, you know. We
went to visit you and Gifford and had our first contact
with the Weschers [Paul and Mary], and I said, "Wow," you
know, "this is quite a place out here." And Paul Kantor
and the galleries — it was really coming into life again.
That's when I became associated with Paul Kantor, and he
started to show my work.
PHILLIPS: Before we talk about Paul, I have, in this
biographical data here, that you received an honorary
degree from the Institute of Design in Chicago in 195 0.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes. Moholy thought anybody that had been
with the school for ten years should have some kind of
[laughter] honorary bachelor's degree, which is the first
and last one I've ever heard of.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, you can always say you're a college
graduate. And then you were in a "Six American Painters"
show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
WOELFFER: Yeah, that's Fred Wight.
PHILLIPS: Fred Wight was running the ICA in Boston
WOELFFER: Right, and he came to Chicago and he saw my work
and included me in that exhibition.
PHILLIPS: You didn't get back for the show, did you?
WOELFFER: No, No.
PHILLIPS: Then in 1951, you had the one-man show at the
Art Institute of Chicago.
WOELFFER: That was an exhibition of drawings and prints.
PHILLIPS: And in 1952 you were in a "Four American Painters"
show at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and
also at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Now,
that was probably a great honor to be asked to the Carnegie
WOELFFER: Yes, it was, quite. I was invited by Vadov
Vytacil, who was a fabulous painter. He's still painting;
he still teaches at the Art Students League in Chicago.
Vytacil came out to Colorado Springs the year before Jimmy
Byrnes came. I knew his work for years as one of the
avant-garde painters in the early Chicago national exhibi-
tions, when Leon Krull and the regionalist painters were
so popular. Vytacil was a very abstract painter. Today
you mention his name, and nobody knows about him. And he
brought his assistant out. Vytacil was an assistant many
years ago to Hans Hofmann in Munich, Germany, along with
Ludwig Sander, and Vytacil would not teach anyplace unless
his buddy, his assistant, Ludwig Sander, came along. And
Ludwig Sander was a little stocky guy who came out for
two years to Colorado Springs. I remember one summer we
took a ride down to Santa Fe , where we met Ed Primus's
first wife, Marjorie Primus, who used to do the captions
for the cartoons in the New Yorker magazine. She used
to send in these captions, and then they would give them
to the cartoonists, Steig and Arno , and then they would do
a cartoon around them. And somehow Ludwig knew her,
many years previous. Ludwig was a wonderful guy. He
taught one of the basic drawing courses. But nobody felt
there was any vitality with Ludwig — nothing was ever going
to happen with Ludwig — and then all these many years later,
Ludwig became quite an important painter.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I met him in New York and he was really
very well thought of. I know Clement Greenberg was quite
interested in him. Then he was doing this very minimal
flat color painting.
WOELFFER: Very classical kind of architechtonic, abstract
PHILLIPS: And he died about two years ago.
WOELFFER: Yes, I just read this in a magazine. At that
time I knew he had a heart problem; he always carried
nitrate pills. That was the last time I saw him, was in
PHILLIPS: Then in 1953, you visited Los Angeles with the
Right, we drove out.
And did you stay there then?
We stayed at Ynez's.
You met Ynez Johnston through the Byrneses.
And Ynez was away, in New York or someplace,
when we arrived, so she gave us her apartment to stay in,
which was next door to Paul and Jo Kantor.
PHILLIPS: That was at the Sepulveda Park apartments.
WOELFFER: Right, where the front garden is now the San
PHILLIPS: One of my memories from Colorado Springs that
summer was a tablecloth that had been painted by Rothko,
Ynez, and, I guess, you. And it was draped around Jo
Kantor, and she posed for a picture for me.
WOELFFER: That's right.
PHILLIPS: So you stayed at Ynez's apartment. I remember
we used to take painting lessons there from her.
WOELFFER: That's right, that's right.
PHILLIPS: And then did you move into that house of Dick
Ruben's, the painter?
WOELFFER: No, that happened after two and a half years
of Italy. In '57 we had about had Colorado, and the
trustees wanted to revert back to the good old days. They
gave me a year's notice, so we got the house in perfect
order to rent and got rid of all our automobiles. [laughter]
We had met Stephanie Tartarsky and her then-husband, Aldo
Paliacci, an Italian painter, and they suggested we come
over to Europe. So they were living on the island of
Ischia, and v;e thought that would be a wonderful idea, so
we started off on that trek.
Jimmy Byrnes was director, I think, or assistant
director, under [William R. ] Valentiner of the North
Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. This was 1957. They
were going to have a modern show, and they were choosing a
jury, which was made up of Dorothy Miller, of the Museum
of Modern Art, and Harry Bertoia, Valentiner' s son-in-law.
Jimmy knew we were coming East. By having us on the jury
it would help defray some of the expenses going to New York
to catch our ship to Europe. So again we packed the car
with the . . . This time we had two dogs, left the cat
behind. And off we went, and stayed with the Byrneses,
who were remodeling a house that they purchased in Raleigh,
juried the show, and then started off for New York in order
to get prepared for Italy.
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE TWO
MARCH 18, 1976
PHILLIPS: As I remember, we left off last time with your
leaving Colorado Springs and going to Ischia.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes. I think we got rid of the stable of
automobiles, leased the house, with the cat. At that time
Jimmy Byrnes was having a juried show at Raleigh, North
Carolina, so he invited me to be on the jury along with
Dorothy Miller of the Museum of Modern Art and the sculptor,
Harry Bertoia, which would enable us to cross country on
the jury fee. So we packed our things in the Chevrolet and
took off and arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, about three
days later, where we spent several days with the Byrneses,
Harry Bertoia, and Dorothy Miller. It was agreed that when
we got to New York, we'd leave the car with Jimmy Byrnes 's
brother, and on our return from Italy, we'd pick the car up
in New York.
PHILLIPS: How did you decide to go to Italy?
WOELFFER: Aldo Paliacci and Stephanie Tartarsky from Denver,
people we knew. He was Italian, and they were going over
there to live, and they suggested that we should join them
there. That's the reason we chose Ischia.
PHILLIPS: That was a good time for you to go on a trip, too,
because the years in Colorado Springs had terminated.
WOELFFER: Exactly. But we didn't know how long we would
stay. As it turned out, we did stay two and a half years.
When we left North Carolina for New York, we drove nonstop
all night long, arrived the next afternoon late, and
arrived at Lenore Tawney's studio, where she put us up,
down on Conti Slip, which is now SoHo, in New York. We
got in touch with Bob Motherwell, and that evening we went
out to do the town. Lenore took a taxi home, and Bob, Dina ,
and myself — we had the two poodles with us, locked in the
car — we went to the Cedar Bar and stayed till late hours
of the morning. We decided to leave and go back downtown,
and Bob decided to stay at the Cedar Bar, so off we went.
After an innumerable amount of drinks and losing a night's
sleep driving up from North Carolina, somehow we were going
uptown rather than downtown, and I dozed. And there was
a tunnel coming up, and I didn't see the tunnel, or I
didn't see the road going up or down, and I hit the retain-
ing wall, and the next thing I knew I was awakened at the
Bellevue Hospital. Just a few scratches on me, miracu-
lously. The dogs were intact; Dina was intact. And the
police told me I'd better remove the car the next morning
off the street. So we took a taxi back down to Lenore ' s ,
and I got up early in the morning to see if I could move
the car. But I had to call a junkyard, and the car, they
said, was worth six dollars. It was completely, totally
destroyed. So with that, I went to the Italian Line and
found out when their next boat was leaving New York for
Italy. There was one the next day, the Saturnia , so we
booked passage on the Saturnia , which was a three-class
ship. It was built in 1936; it was an old tub. And Ray
Parker came to see us off. And our stateroom was so large
we had to put the chair out into the vestibule for Ray to
sit on. [laughter] And after a few drinks he left, and
about five o'clock, the ship took off, and we discovered
that our berths were right behind the pistons of the ship.
It sounded like someone beating on the wall with a sledge-
hammer. We heard the bell for dinner and started down
the hall for dinner, and we discovered that there were 350
undesirable aliens being deported back to Italy, and Dina
was the only female. It was quite a thing on a third-
class Italian boat. So we went to dinner, and we started
to reach for something on the table, bread or wine, and
it was completely gone. So with all this disgust, I went
up and saw the purser, to find out whether we could
change to cabin class, second class, which with some money
under the table was immediately arranged. And we found
ourselves up in second class, which was much more desirable.
We met some interesting people aboard ship, and after
twelve days, we arrived in Naples, where the Paliaccis were
there, waiting for us.
PHILLIPS: How did you feel during this time? Were you
excited about going to the new place and having new
WOELFFER: Very exciting.
PHILLIPS: Were you apprehensive at all about it?
WOELFFER: No, not at all. We took this little vessel
which goes from island to island, and it was about an hour-
and-a-half ride on the little ship to Porto d'Ischia. Porto
is the main town on this island, at which point we got in
a taxi, and in another fifteen minutes we were in the
village of Ischia, where we parked our gear and dogs and
went down the stairs to the beach restaurant called
Filippo's. Filippo was an American who had married an
Italian woman so that he could start business on the island,
a restaurant business. He was quite a character. He was
an old Hollywood character, played in several movies, and
he tended bar and his wife did the cooking and the serving
and everything else, and he just sat at the bar and got
drunk every day. It was quite a place. Sir William Walton,
the British composer, had a group of houses on the island
that he leased out. We became quite friendly with him.
And from time to time there 'd be various people coming on
the island. There were many actors. Dylan Thomas's wife
used to live on the island. Carlyle Brown, the painter,
lived on the island. [Leonardo] Cremonini. Matta, the
painter, had a house on the island. And I met Sir Laurence
Olivier; he used to frequent the island.
We had two and a half years, two very cold winters,
the first one being the most terrible of all because we
rented a huge, beautiful ten-room apartment on the top floor
of a building which was the tallest building on the island
which overlooked the sea, and the only heat was charcoal
braziers that you put charcoal in, and you put them under
your chair and fanned them to keep warm. And we found out
later that the trick was to get an apartment where the win-
dows faced the west, so in the afternoon you keep the
windows open and get all that beautiful sun inside. As
soon as the sun goes down, you completely, immediately close
the windows so you trap that nice warm sunshine air into
your house, which is supposed to last for the evening.
PHILLIPS: How cold does it get?
WOELFFER: Well, we had snow. We overlooked a mountain
called Mt. Epomeo, which wasn't too tall a mountain. It
was a volcanic remains from an earthquake they'd had many
years before. From time to time, there was snow on the
mountains, so it was quite cold. We had a bombalo--a
butane tank which we used to put on the stove burners in
order to have heat for cooking.
PHILLIPS: This was your first trip to Europe?
WOELFFER: Yes, first trip, and of very primitive means.
PHILLIPS: Did you get anyplace other than Ischia?
WOELFFER: After about six months there, a friend of mine,
a photographer, was over in the south of France on a Graham
award — Graham, the architect from Chicago. And he was
staying in a beautiful house that belonged to Andre Mason,
the French surrealist painter. So I went to visit him. I
took off for a couple of weeks , took a train from Naples to
Cannes, where he met me, and then we drove from Cannes to
Aix-en-Provence, this beautiful little village in Cezanne
country — it's where Cezanne had his studio, which still
remains. There is a popular music college there in Aix-en-
Provence. It's one of the most beautiful little towns I've
ever visited. So I stayed there with Harry Callahan, the
photographer, for about a week and a half, and we went out
with them several times on photo trips . At that time
another Chicago photographer by the name of Arthur
Sinzabaugh was there, and we took some trips to Marseilles
and Monte Carlo and many of the little towns in that area,
and when they were driving me back to Cannes to catch the
train for Naples, I suggested that we stop in Antibes,
which they had never been in. I'd heard of Antibes, the
Grimaldi fortress there. At the end of the war, Picasso
was living there and painted and drew enough work to cover
all the walls of this old, medieval fortress in Antibes.
He left the work there.
PHILLIPS: Did you see much older European art, high
European art, like Renaissance, baroque, and so on?
I ask that because it's the sort of thing I'm sure you'd
gotten a lot of in art school, and I wondered how you
reacted to it.
WOELFFER: I saw some in Rome, but the best examples are
in France and other countries, it seems, and in this
country. In Naples, they have that museum, Capa de Monti
Museum, and it is mostly, I guess, what one would call fifth-
and sixth-rate work, Italian impressionism. They have one
wonderful painting there by Brueghel called The Blind
Leading the Blind, which is the best thing in the museum.
And after you see that painting, you walk into a little
area where you sit down and have an aperitif, which is very
sensible. Most museums don't have this sort of thing.
After a year and a half there, a friend of ours from
Denver came and bought some of my work and suggested that
we should come to see her. She was then living in Madrid,
Spain — bought a beautiful apartment there, so she suggested
that we come to see her. So on our way, we stopped off in
Rome, where I saw Afro [Basaldella] the painter and Turcato
the painter, and met Giorgio de Chirico, the surrealist, one
of the fathers of surrealism.
PHILLIPS: He must have been quite an old man then.
WOELFFER: He was in his, I guess, late sixties. He's still
painting up a storm. The paintings aren't too good, but
anyway, he's still painting. His painting reverted to the
earlier style which made him famous — metaphysical kind of
PHILLIPS: Did he speak any English?
WOELFFER: No, he spoke only Italian, and the people that
we were with spoke both. There were Italians who spoke some
English. Oh, there was another painter there — offhand I
can't think of his name, but anyway, I'd met him in Colorado
Springs. He was born in New York; at the age of two months,
they took him back to Italy, where he remained. When he
became of age, the government came to him and said, "You
want to be an American or Italian?" He said, "American."
They said, "Fine, you're drafted into the army." And they
sent him to Colorado Springs, where he painted signs for
the officers, did their portraits. He was there six months,
and they sent him back to Europe and then mustered him out
of the service. I met him in Colorado Springs, and of course
we saw him in Rome, where we also ran into Jo Kantor, who
was over there at that time.
PHILLIPS: Were she and Paul getting divorced then?
WOELFFER: They were getting divorced. Yes, she was over on
her way to Paris to meet Wright Morris, whom she later
married. And on our way to Madrid, we took the train, and
ray gosh, I could hear the conductor yell, "Aries 1" And we
looked out and we saw van Gogh all around, so we jumped off
the train in a hurry and spent three days in Aries looking
at this beautiful van Gogh country.
PHILLIPS: Are there any van Gogh paintings in Aries?
WOELFFER: They have a little van Gogh museum, and there
are reproductions out of their magazine, which is comparable
to our Life and Look magazine. They're cut out, and they're
put in little, cheap picture frames, and the caretaker of
this little museum with the reproductions said, "You know,
they're all over in your country, all the good paintings."
PHILLIPS: There's a Gauguin museum in Tahiti, and it's
filled with reproductions, too.
WOELFFER: Yeah, the good pieces are all gone. So we found
that Hugo Weber was living in Cadaques, Costa Brava, so we
took the train from Aries and went to Barcelona, where we
got off and immediately took a bus to Barcelona down to the
Costa Brava, where we saw Hugo Weber and his wife, Ann.
Hugo had a wonderful, huge balconied space above a bar on
the beach. Many of the French painters go to the Costa
Brava in the summer because it's not anywhere near as
expensive as the French Riviera. Hugo dropped his paint-
brush and greeted us lovingly, and we went down immediately
to the bar for a drink, and there was sitting Marcel Duchamp,
whom I met for the first time. Hugo and he became quite
friendly. Duchamp spent his summers in Costa Brava. Also,
Salvador Dali has a beautiful home on the coast, right on
the sea, a little inlet bay where his wife, Gala, every day
goes out to skindiving. So through Duchamp and Hugo, we
met Dali; I had met him many years earlier in Chicago. The
Franco regime condemned all the land for a couple of miles
around Dali ' s house so nobody could build there, so he'd
have complete privacy. He was a very exciting character.
PHILLIPS: There's a new book out on him. I was reading
the review by Bob Kirsch, and he seemed to think that Dali
was really a genius. You think it was his energy he was
WOELFFER: Well, you know Bob Motherwell thinks he's an
awful painter but that he's a fantastic writer, fabulous
writer. His writing is, I think, very good, very exciting,
PHILLIPS: And he has that strange, unusual mind.
WOELFFER: He was here in Los Angeles many years ago. Walt
Disney called him up to come over and work with him on the
movie Fantasia. But both of those men having the same kind
of temperament and the same kind of ego didn't hit it off
PHILLIPS: That's a funny juxtaposition — Salvador Dali and
WOELFFER: Yes. And so he stomped out of there and left.
I first saw Walt Disney's things on the wall of a gallery
in New York City, the Julien Levy Gallery, which at one time
was the gallery for surrealist art, and here was an exhibi-
tion of [Arshile] Gorky, Max Ernst, and Walt Disney.
WOELFFER: Walt Disney's cartoons, because the surrealists
immediately accepted him as one of theirs, because imagine,
you know, here's a mouse that talks. This is really quite
surrealistic. So they idolized Disney.
PHILLIPS: But you don't think that Disney had any of the
intellectual foundation that they had.
WOELFFER: No, he didn't want to. He didn't want his stuff
to be in fine arts. I think his very early pictures were
quite terrific, much better than his later ones. [tape
recorder turned off]
PHILLIPS: When you were in Ischia, were you painting?
WOELFFER: Painting constantly. Yes, I had all this space.
To my great surprise, I discovered how horrible the Italian
art materials were. I thought, of all places in the world —
the history of great painting--they would have the finest
brushes, paints, and canvas. They were just absolutely
horrible. The best materials came from France. But I was
able to get a man — there was a man on the island who would
go to the mainland every day and bring back whatever you
needed in the way of supplies. Because after a while, as
nice as that boat ride was to Naples and back, it left at
five- thirty in the morning, in the dark, and you got the
boat coming back from Naples at three in the afternoon. And
everybody was gay in the morning, drinking and talking, and
then when it came back, everyone had done their business in
Naples. At three in the afternoon, everybody was sleeping,
[laughter] But there was this man--he was a courier, and
he would get whatever you wanted for you. I'd order a
canvas and stretcher bars, and he'd bring them back to me.
I did find one thing on the island — that was a canned white
paint, oil paint, oil paste paint, and it was the finest
white I've ever run into. It never, never yellowed at all.
There were some other painters on the island. There was
Count Borgrauve; his brother is at the Belgian consulate in
Washington, now. And then there were some lesser-known
painters. Every night we'd meet at Filippo's and eat and
drink and talk. It was sort of a ritual.
PHILLIPS: Did you paint during the day or at night there?
WOELFFER: There I painted during the day because if you
put too much light on at night, it would blow the fuse. The
fuse was made out of a little, fine piece of wire. And when
they'd have an electrical storm, all the lights in the whole
island would go out. And the electricians for this island
were terrified to go up on the light poles when it was rain-
ing. So you'd have to wait till it stopped raining the next
day before they attempted to go up it. So we painted in the
daytime; and at night, most of the time, we were with
PHILLIPS: You usually paint at night here, don't you?
WOELFFER: Yeah, I like it at night here. It's quiet,
peaceful, and very relaxing.
PHILLIPS: When did you start doing this?
WOELFFER: I started doing that along about 1940, I think.
I used to have jobs in the daytime, and it's a natural thing
to paint at night. I got into that habit, I guess.
PHILLIPS: You mentioned earlier that when you stopped paint-
ing for several weeks, it was hard to get back.
WOELFFER: Yeah. Starting a painting, I think, is the most
difficult thing; it's as difficult as stopping. You build
up a sort of a tempo that you go to.
PHILLIPS: And when you're working on something, you're
eager to get back to it?
WOELFFER: Right, right.
PHILLIPS: How long does it take you to paint a painting?
WOELFFER: Anywhere from maybe a half-hour to several weeks.
PHILLIPS: I assume that when you struggle, it takes
WOELFFER: I think when I'm moving into a different direc-
tion, there's quite a bit of struggle. And then afterwards,
the struggle ceases for me, and then I try to move on to
another area, where I can start a struggle all over again.
PHILLIPS: Do you feel that a lot of your painting is
WOELFFER: Yes, very much so. This is, I feel, my kinship
with the surrealist painters. I paint first and think
afterwards. Some people think and then paint. I think after
PHILLIPS: So when you approach that bare canvas, with the
dripping great brush — you just start.
WOELFFER: Whatever happens to be, and I just start. I look
at the jars of paint, and I think, "That's a nice color,"
and that's the thing that starts it off. You're not always
successful when you work that way. There are many of them
that are destroyed. The selectivity begins, I think, after
I have done quite a few of them. I set them out and go
through them. I rework some, and others I completely destroy.
PHILLIPS: What kind of paintings were you doing in Ischia?
WOELFFER: They were mostly black, ochre, and white, and sort
of Naples yellow, which is an earthy kind of yellow. The
name comes from Naples because the buildings in Naples are
all this color. That's where the word Naples yellow comes
from. And the people on the island — there's not a week
goes by without a funeral procession. Used to come down
our street very sad, people in tears, everybody walking.
PHILLIPS: And all wearing black.
WOELFFER: All wearing black — black, black, black. The men
with black armbands, the women in black dresses. And they'd
have to stay in mourning a year, and by the time the year's
up, there's somebody else in the family that has departed,
so they're constantly in black. Many times people have
asked me, and I've thought maybe it's a rationalization.
Maybe it isn't, but I feel that my paintings reflected that
PHILLIPS: So you are, quite naturally, influenced by your
WOELFFER: Oh, very definitely. Out here, we have flowers
and colors; there's no sunshine like it out here. My color
is much lighter, my pictures are brighter.
PHILLIPS: And I know the paintings from the Colorado
Springs period . . .
WOELFFER: The birds.
PHILLIPS: The birds and the jets and the sky, around 1956.
WOELFFER: Right, and then the early ones before that, the
jazz pictures, from the jam sessions in Chicago.
PHILLIPS: When you were doing the paintings that were
influenced by the jazz sessions, were you conscious of it
at the time?
PHILLIPS: It was afterwards.
WOELFFER: I Still paint sometimes with music on, but a little
more quiet music. But in Chicago it was jazz music
constantly playing while I was working.
PHILLIPS: And I know that some of those paintings are
titled things like Birdland .
WOELFFER: Right, yeah, what was happening at the time.
Homage to Danny Alvin , the drummer; all pertaining to the
jazz era, the jazz scene.
PHILLIPS: But was it after you had completed a large group
of these that you realized that they all had to do with
jazz, and so you gave them those titles?
WOELFFER: Right, the titles come about only when I'm asked
to exhibit the painting, or someone wants to purchase one,
or someone has to put one in a catalog or write about it.
That's when I think of the title. But I never title them —
in all of ray new ones here, I don't have any titles on at
all. For my last show in New York, it was a task I had
to do — to title these things. And sometimes the titles are
very misleading, have nothing to do with the painting, but
they have to do with the situation, the place and the time
that they were created in. I think one of the greatest
talents to title paintings was Paul Klee — very, very poetic.
He was a poet and musician. His titles are just pure poetry,
And other painters put numbers on theirs. They didn't want
the title of the painting to influence the viewer.
PHILLIPS: And you've always done a lot of collage.
PHILLIPS: And playful things as well as painting. For
instance, right now you're working on this setup for your
movie. The electric toy trains.
WOELFFER: That's a diversion of some sort. I think when
it gets all finished, whatever I do with it, it will probably
be covered up. I'll have had my fun and enjoyment with
it, and I'll give it to some children, or something.
PHILLIPS: Well, it certainly seems that a lot of artists
have a very playful side to their activity. Picasso certainly
WOELFFER: Right, right, yeah. Picasso and his hats, and
his getup and everything.
PHILLIPS: And the found-objects sculpture. [Alexander]
Calder with his toys. And I know Picasso is somebody you
admire a lot.
WOELFFER: Yeah, I think that he was quite unique. I don't
think in our lifetime we'll see anybody else like him.
PHILLIPS: Are there periods of Picasso paintings that you
like better than others?
WOELFFER: Not particular periods, but particular paintings.
PHILLIPS: Which ones? What's the first Picasso painting
that you remember that had a big influence on you, that
really struck you?
WOELFFER: It was when I was going to art school, and the
loan collection from Chester Dale in Washington, D.C., came
to the Art Institute. At that particular time my work was
pertaining to the figure, because all we painted in art
school was the figure. So therefore I was very much struck
by these huge paintings, by these classical paintings of
Picasso, the Greek period — the big hands and the big feet,
sculptural paintings. They really . . . and then, of course,
they had the big painting the Saltimbanques , that huge,
beautiful painting of the circus people. And I was very
much influenced by those figure paintings. Not so much by
the distorted ones.
When I was going to art school, it was at the time of
the Spanish civil war, so there were a lot of things of
Picasso being shown — the Dreams and Lies of Franco, and all
those studies for the Guernica , the big painting, which
when it came to Chicago was the real shocker to me, because
I . . .
PHILLIPS: Did that travel around the country?
WOELFFER: Yes. That was at the Arts Club in Chicago.
PHILLIPS: It's a fabulous painting.
WOELFFER: I walked in, expecting to see a big colorful
painting, and I flipped. It was just in black and white
and grays. I didn't realize it was not in color.
PHILLIPS: How was it that you became an abstract painter?
I mean by that that you worked with colors and planes and
moods, and that there's no recognizable literal imagery
in your work.
WOELFFER: I think it's because of the shows that I hung for
Katharine Kuh--all the shows she had were that, and the
things the Arts Club used to show at that tirae.
PHILLIPS: That was what was going on then among the avant-
WOELFFER: And what was going on in American painting at
that time was the social realism and . . .
WOELFFER: Regional, [Thomas Hart] Benton, [John Steuart]
Curry, and that sort of thing, which didn't move me what-
soever. It seemed to me much more illustration, and I liked
the adventure of this not-knowing kind of thing.
PHILLIPS: That's certainly an idea that the surrealists put
across, wasn't it?
WOELFFER: Right, right. Where everybody else was busy
finding a particular kind of mixture and then kept putting
it in the same bread tin and baking it and cooking it and
baking it all over again, you know, repeating themselves
too much. They found a formula; it became a formula kind
PHILLIPS: [Joan] Miro was also someone you admire a lot.
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. Mir6 very much so, because I have
quite a few of his lithographs. I think today he's really
playful. That "Fifteen European Painters" show at the
L.A. County [Museiom] — those paintings with the buckets hang-
ing on them. He's in his eighties.
PHILLIPS: He's always had that very playful element in his
WOELFFER: When we left Barcelona we took a horrible third-
class train to Madrid, an all-night ride. We had first-
class tickets, but somehow I didn't show the tickets for a
particular seat on the train, so they ushered us into a
third-class car with wooden benches. And Dina and I got on
there with the wooden benches; there are six people on each
PHILLIPS: Terrible things were always happening to you in
WOELFFER: All night long. And then there were Arabs and
all kinds of people sleeping in the aisles of the train,
and you start to doze off and then the government men would
come around and shake everybody to see their passports,
because in Spain you can't go from town to town without
permission. And it was an, oh, horrible ride, nothing to
eat or drink; it was hot. But anyway, when we arrived in
Madrid the next morning, we were absolutely beat, and
Josephine Taylor, the gal who we were going to see, who had
been to visit us in Ischia, had her man there with the car
to pick us up, and took us to this fantastic, beautiful
apartment in Madrid, where they had run hot tubs for us.
PHILLIPS: That's great. I remember one night years ago
sitting in — I think it was Peter Matisse's backyard in
Westwood, and Paul Kantor was there, and Gifford and I, and
you and Dina, and Peter, and you were enumerating the six
painters that you thought were the best modern painters.
Let me see if I can remember. One was Picasso ....
PHILLIPS: One was Miro. And I think [Alberto] Giacometti.
WOELFFER: Right. I . . .
PHILLIPS: Though he ' s a sculptor. Motherwell . . .
PHILLIPS: [Willem] de Kooning . . .
WOELFFER: De Kooning.
PHILLIPS: I'm forgetting somebody. If there were six;
maybe there were just . . .
WOELFFER: The sixth one, I recall, was myself.
PHILLIPS: The sixth one was Emerson Woelffer, yes, yes,
yes — I remember it well. [laughter]
WOELFFER: My, what a memory.
Well, we spent a week and a half in this luscious
apartment in Madrid, just anything we wanted, and we did the
town every night. Of course, in Spain you don't start until
nine, ten o'clock at night for dinner, and Josie said, "I
have to go up to take my car up to France; it's registered
in France. How about coming along?" I said, "That'd be
great." I'd never been to France. So we got in the car
and drove, and got up to St. Jean-de-Luz, that area up in
there, and on into France. And when we were in the south
of France, I said, "Josie, we are very close to the Lascaux
Caves--now this is something we must see." And she said,
"I'm sorry, my dears, I'm not in the mood for caves this
morning." And we drove past the Lascaux Caves, and now they
are sealed up again. But we stopped at Le Mans, and we
stopped — where is it that they make the mustard, the great
WOELFFER: Dijon. And right into Paris. I was at the wheel
at that time. We hit Paris and we hit one of these circles
where the Arc de Triomphe is. When you once get in that
circle, you have a hell of a time getting off the circle.
So it was quite an experience. And Hugo Weber had told me
to go see his concierge — he was living on rue de Maine in
Montparnasse — and that we could all stay at his studio
because they were down at Cadaques. So the man said,
"Here's the key, but you go in. I'm not going into that
apartment." I said, "What's the matter?" He said, "Never
mind." Well, I said, "Come on, okay." He said, "I won't go
in. You go in, you can stay there." So I took the key, and
the three of us walked into his apartment. It was two floors,
and all we saw were things jumping this high off the ground —
fleas, by the thousands.
WOELFFER: All you could see was a ray of fleas going up
and down. So we ran out of the apartment quickly and gave
him back the key. And he said, "You see what I mean." So
I immediately wrote Hugo, because they were due to come
back in a few weeks, so he had some exterminator come in,
I guess. You see a lot of that, fleas over there, for some
reason, and they bit. So we found a little hotel near the
Montparnasse railroad depot, where we stayed. And it was
the time of the Algerian crisis, and there were all these
gendarmes going up and down the street with submachine guns,
It looked like warfare. But I stayed, oh, two weeks in
Paris, which wasn't very long, but it was really . . .
Did you go to the Louvre?
Went to the Louvre.
How did you react to all that stuff?
Fantastic, just fantastic.
In a more general vein, what were your overall
impressions of Europe and all that culture and heritage?
WOELFFER: Usually, when I'm going someplace, I over-
visualize the greatness of what I'm going to see, and many
times I'm disappointed, but Europe wasn't that way at all.
It was much, much more than I really expected. It was a
And then we went back to the train and went back to
Ischia. By this time, we had rented another house. A man
had a house where the windows and doors faced the west, and
he had a garden, big garden, with fruit trees, and said,
"Just help yourself. " So that last year there was much more
desirable. And we had many friends that came through to
PHILLIPS: Who came through?
WOELFFER: Fred Wacker and his wife, Jana, from Chicago; they
came through on their honeymoon. A friend of mine, Ray Trail,
from San Diego, came through and saw us, and an innumerable
amount of people. Offhand, at this moment, I can't place
them all, but it was almost like Colorado Springs--people
coming across the continent always stopping in Colorado
Springs to see the Byrneses or ourselves. There were all
kinds of cliques, of course, on the island. And there were
some contessas, and King Hussein's daughter came there and
bought a house, and there were some fantastic parties.
PHILLIPS: And there were lots of homosexuals.
WOELFFER: And there were of course cliques. We threw a
fantastic party. It was very inexpensive to throw a party
there because people only drank wine, and wine was plenti-
ful, so a few loaves of bread and a case of wine and some
cheese, and everything was fine. Christmastime was very
interesting. The bagpipe players from in the hills of
Palermo would come to the island. They had their legs
wrapped in burlap sacking, and they played wonderful
Christmas music on their clarinets and bagpipes. There were
bagpipe players from the mountain villages.
It came time, after two and a half years of this, time
to return, and where to return to was the question. There
was no sense going back to Colorado Springs, but Jimmy
Byrnes wrote and said, "Why do you not write Mitch Wilder,
your old director from Colorado Springs? He's the director
at Chouinard Art Institute." I said, "Gee, that's a fabulous
idea, because I'd had that one visit out to Los Angeles when
we visited you and the Weschers." I said, "This is the
place where you have green all year around. " So I wrote
Mitch, and Mitch wired back, "You're in." So I had a job
PHILLIPS: And what year was that — 1959?
WOELFFER: We arrived back here . . .
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE ONE
MARCH 18, 1976 and MARCH 23, 1976
PHILLIPS: You were talking about your leaving Ischia.
WOELFFER: Yes. When the position came about from Mitch
Wilder, we then readied ourselves for the long journey to
Los Angeles. So the first thing we had to do was to book
passage, and we thought this time we wouldn't go back on an
Italian liner, but we'd take a nice American liner. So we
booked passage on the Constitution , and we were supposed to
leave the following week. And that was delayed because the
Constitution , on the way out of New York, had an accident
with another ship. And that put a hole in it, so that took
a couple of weeks. We were two weeks delayed. In the mean-
time--sometime before this I had to get a show ready to ship
back to New York, to the Poindexter Gallery, which was some-
thing, because wood is not available like it is here. You
don't go to a lumberyard and get all the wood you want to
build the box.
PHILLIPS: How did you happen to be showing at the Poindexter
WOELFFER: Well, on my way to Europe, I had met Ellie [Elinor
Poindexter] in Chicago through the photographer Aaron
Siskind. And when I got to New York, Franz Kline wanted to
see me. And we saw him with [Matsumi] Kanemitsu at the
Cedar Bar, and he made an arrangement with Ellie Poindexter,
and we all got together. Ellie was rather skeptical about
giving me a show. She hadn't seen my work, and Franz Kline
assured her that it'd be a beautiful show. "Don't worry
about it at all. He's going over to Italy. He'll paint you
a show and send it back." So Franz was very nice to do that.
I did; I had enough paintings and I sent them back, but get-
ting the box made was something. Nearly everyone in the
island was involved in this. We had to get government per-
mission, and then when the paintings were boxed and were
taken over to Naples, the customs people in Naples wanted to
open the box there to see what was in the box because they
felt maybe it was taken off of a ship, in the bay, and there's
contraband coming in or something. Then we had to get clear-
ance from the museum director in Naples that there were no
old masters in the box being shipped back to New York. By
the time the paintings arrived back in New York, the green
wood of the stretcher bars — the paintings were all warped,
and the gallery had to send the paintings out to be re-
stretched on new stretcher bars. But anyway, we were all
set to come back, and there was party after party for us,
and the townspeople were very, very unhappy that we were
leaving. In the beginning, when we moved there, they were
quite cold, and they had a half a dozen different prices for
everything we bought. They thought we were just vacation-
ing. And after they knew we were going to live there, the
prices just suddenly came way down. And from time to time,
a painting, maybe, wasn't sold, or my dealer wasn't sending
me money, and I had no money, so the people, the grocers and
the butcher, everyone said, "Don't worry about a thing, you
know. We don't worry about your money. Take whatever you
want, whatever we have." They were just beautiful people.
And most of the people there paid their bills once a year.
So it was time to debark, everybody in the village — the bread
man, and the fruit man, the vegetable man — everybody came
down to the port.
PHILLIPS : Had you paid them by now?
WOELFFER: They were all paid by then. We just were loaded
with fruit and candy and cakes and wine, and they were all
so sad we were leaving. Well, we got the boat over to Naples,
where the Constitution was waiting. It was going to take
off at four that afternoon, so we had a good five hours, six
hours on board ship. We had our two poodles with us, and
the accommodations for the poodles were much nicer on the
Constitution than they were on the old Italian boat, the
Saturnia , where the kennels were dirty and they gave the dogs
spaghetti instead of bones and meat. And the Constitution
even had a veterinary on board ship. We took off, and we went
tourist class, but the ship was so empty, without any
additional passage they moved everybody up to second class.
And we had second class on the Cons ti tut ion - -which was very
nice--and made some new acquaintances on board ship.
PHILLIPS: That's the ship that's used by State Department
personnel, Americans working for the government.
WOELFFER: There's the Constitution and the Independence ;
they're sister ships. And we arrived back in New York, and
again Lenore Tawney was there to greet us. We had boxes and
boxes and boxes of paintings and everything else, and while
I was watching the customs men making people tear their
boxes and suitcases apart I said, "Oh, we're going to be here
for several days." Well, the customs man, a very gruff man,
said, "You're next." I said, "Yes." He said, "What do you
do? How long have you been there? What have you been doing
over there?" I said, "I'm an artist, a painter." "Oh, a
painter," he said. "Oh, once I had a friend that was a
janitor in the Art Students League, and he used to let me
come in at night and look in the door and see the nude models."
So I went along with him, and he loved to tell me the story.
He was marking the boxes, "Okay, okay," and we had to open
up nothing whatsoever. And we saw a f acino — not a facino ;
that's Italian, a man that pulls your bags in. He took us
out front to where there was a truck we'd leased, and we put
everything on the truck and went across to New Jersey to
the Denver-Chicago Shipping Company, where we shipped
everything to my mother in Chicago — that's where we were on
our way to. We spent a couple of days in New York. I think
it was one of the last runs of the Red Carpet service, or
the New York Central, the Twentieth Century Limited. We put
the dogs and the baggage on the Twentieth Century, finally
took off for Chicago where we arrived the next morning, and
went directly to my mother's where we stayed a week or two,
trying to decide what we were going to do, how we were going
to get to Los Angeles, etc. , etc. The first thing was to
purchase a set of wheels. So my mother knew a man at the
grocery store whose brother sold Chevrolets, and we went and
picked out a brand-new Chevrolet. I didn't have any credit
at that time, having been away for that length of time, but
I had him call the vice-president of the bank in Colorado
Springs to verify me and everything else, a wonderful man
there by the name of John Love who eventually became the
governor of Colorado. And he said, "Anything Woelffer wants,
just give it to him. I'll stand behind him." So we got
this brand-new beautiful Chevrolet and packed it and started
out for Los Angeles, where we arrived many days later.
PHILLIPS: Before we go into the Los Angeles section, let me
ask you a few questions. (That's an interesting story about
John Love, in Colorado Springs.) How do you react to the
art system that we have in this country, with the commercial
galleries and the selling of paintings, and the role of the
dealers, and the role of the curators? And how much do
museums do for painters? And do they do enough, do you
WOELFFER: I don't think they do enough. It differs in this
country, much more so, I think, than it does in Europe. I
think, over here, we're much more fashion-oriented.
PHILLIPS: More trendy.
WOELFFER: Trendy, always looking for a new item or a new
model, whereas Europe, you'll still see the galleries showing
Giacometti , although he's been dead for several years now,
see much more of a love for the art than over here. It
seems to be more of a thing of merchandising, which is okay,
in a sense, for the artist because he wants to sell his work.
It has to be merchandised if it's going to be sold.
PHILLIPS: In a way, what happens to the artist in this
country is just a reflection of what happens to everything
in our economic system.
WOELFFER: Right. Because there are so many of them — I go
through my old journals I have here, and I say, "Oh, for
gosh sakes, look at this painter William Congden. Why, he
used to be on the cover of Art News every other month. What
happened to him? Where is he? I know he's not dead, you
know." They work you over for a while, and then you're gone —
which I don't think is right. I think if anything is good,
regardless of its concept or style, it should be able to live.
I think you can put all good things together, even if
they're from different periods, and they will work out quite
well with each other.
PHILLIPS: Jimmy Byrnes has meant a lot to you in your
WOELFFER: Yes, he's done a lot for me, and we've been very
close to him and Barbara.
PHILLIPS: He's an example of the curator who's done a
lot • . .
WOELFFER: Done a lot and loved art, bought art, collected
art, helped out artists.
PHILLIPS: What tends to happen, I think quite naturally, is
that curators and critics are very helpful to people they
know well--with whom they learned about art, and with whom
they had early experiences.
WOELFFER: Right. And you find that many of them are on the
move. When they get a new position, they always seem to
have their left eye on the next place they're going to go to-
in other words, moving up in society, moving up to a better
position. Sometimes I find many of them use art for their
own thing, their own . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . advancement.
WOELFFER: . . . advancement. I know some people in the
feminist movement — I will not mention any names--who use it
for their advancement.
PHILLIPS: How do you feel about the current feminist move-
ment, and especially as it relates to art?
WOELFFER: I think that it's fine for those who want to
become a part of it. I know some who are very strong in it,
and I know some who don't need that, who've made out quite
well on their own without the movement. I certainly believe
that women should have equal rights, you know, as man does.
I can't see women on the front lines with a machine gun,
although that's been done before. I can't see women on the
third floor of a building, a burning building, on a step-
ladder, carrying a 200-pound man on her back. I think there
are certain things where it's carried too far. But some-
times you have to ask for the whole pile in order to get
half of the pile, you know.
PHILLIPS: I think it's true that women haven't been encour-
aged to be artists in the way that men have been and often
have not been looked on as serious artists.
WOELFFER: I've heard all sorts of stories to the effect of
a woman taking her paintings to a gallery and being refused
an exhibition, and then, some months later, a man taking the
same paintings in — I don't know how true that is. Well,
I'd rather not say. [laughter]
PHILLIPS: Now, there are a lot of cultural values that we
grow up with and grow accustomed to that got started in
places like Ischia. [laughter]
WOELFFER: Kanemitsu once told me he became a painter because
when they look at his paintings, unless they see his name
below there, they don't know if a woman painted it, a China-
man, a Japanese, who painted it. And this way, he could be
kept out of it completely. Where otherwise, if he's doing
a job where he is there, they say, "Oh, he ' s a Japanese,"
PHILLIPS: Yes. How do you feel about art critics? Is
there any critic who you feel has really understood your work
well and written well about it?
WOELFFER: Well, number one, Gerry Nordland has, always has.
And Tom Messer of the Guggenheim Museum likes my work very
much. And Clem Greenberg — I'm much more excited when another
painter whom I respect likes my work. That is much more
meaningful to me.
PHILLIPS: Another person who has written beautifully about
your work is Paul Wescher, I think.
WOELFFER: Yes, Paul. Yeah, he is one of those rare — they
don't come along too much anymore. I find most critics,
when they write, they reveal more about themselves than they
do about the artists they're writing about.
PHILLIPS: It must be terrible to have someone writing about
your work who really doesn't understand it, doesn't feel for
WOELFFER: Right. We were talking the other night about —
Gerry knows a lot about art. So-and-so knows a lot about
art. But when we were all together with [Alberto] Burri ,
the painter, he understood me much more than Gerry does.
And I understood Burri much more because I'm another artist.
Not that I don't respect him [Gerry], but I think that it's
a different thing: the guy is creating, doing it. He ' s so
much closer, understands, has a little extra edge, or some-
PHILLIPS: It pleases you when other artists respond to what
you' re doing .
WOELFFER: Yes, that means quite a bit to me. Yeah, like
[Robert] Motherwell, he wants to trade with me; he likes my
work. I have some beautiful letters he's written me about
my paintings. Kline — I have some nice letters from Franz
PHILLIPS: You liked Kline's work a lot.
WOELFFER: Yes, very much.
WOELFFER: Liked him--he's a very terrific, honest individual,
not pushy, not going to extremes in order to "make it," you
know. He avoided the social scene, you know — being seen here
and being seen there in order to further your career as an
artist, which a lot of today's socializing is all about.
PHILLIPS: Who are some of the dealers you admire? That
you've liked over the years.
WOELFFER: Charlie Egan, von Neumann, the dealer in New York,
Peggy Guggenheim. ... Of course, these are dealers of
the near past. Today they seem to come on and go off the
scene quite rapidly. They don't seem to have that kind of
dedication, Pierre Matisse, I think, is very good. I
always liked the things Julien Levy used to show--Julien
PHILLIPS: Well, shall we stop? Okay.
MARCH 23, 19 7 6
PHILLIPS: Emerson, you wanted to add some things about the
Chicago years before we go on talking about your move to
WOELFFER: I think we should mention, in December 7, 1940,
I met Diane, and married Diane.
PHILLIPS: The same day? [laughter]
WOELFFER: No, no, no. Several months later. We were
married on December the seventh. And she lived several
blocks away, and moved into my studio, which was on Pearson
Street, just west of the water tower in Chicago. And I
continued working at the Institute of Design with Moholy-
Nagy. At that particular time, the school moved from the
Chez Paree building to another building. And I was con-
tinuing showing. I hadn't at that time had my first New
York show yet. It was two years later, I think 1947, that
I went to New York and had my first show at the Artists
Gallery. Correct me — did I say we were married in 1940?
WOELFFER: We were married in 1945, December 7, 1945.
PHILLIPS: When was Pearl Harbor? Speaking of December.
WOELFFER: It was December 7, 1940.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that's what you were thinking of.
WOELFFER: While we were in Chicago, I think I had two shows
in New York, was continuing showing at the Art Institute,
at the Whitney Annuals, and I was invited to the Carnegie
Institute, the Carnegie show, I think in 1947, '48. That's
PHILLIPS: I think we talked about this last time, but you
gave me those two catalogs of shows. Were they from the
WOELFFER: That was the University of Illinois.
PHILLIPS: The Urbana shows.
WOELFFER: It was then a yearly show.
PHILLIPS: It was interesting to see how all of the American
painters who were included in that show--some of whom went
on to be very famous, like Jackson Pollock — were doing that
same postcubist thing in their paintings.
WOELFFER: Right. That was very strong at that particular
period. I think one of the leaders of that was Karl Knaths
and Max Weber, who were out of Cezanne and cubism. They
had had some trips to Paris and were quite influenced, as
was Diego Rivera when he came back from his first trip to
Paris. His paintings then were very postcubist.
PHILLIPS: When one looks back, it's easy to see all of the
influences, and I suppose for many of the things that are
going on today, a different set of influences are exerting
themselves, but they're still there, and there's a "look"
to the avant-garde material from any period.
PHILLIPS: At the same time, someone like yourself has
become very much your own man in how your paintings look.
WOELFFER: I don't feel that the younger painters of today
are being influenced by the old, super masters because the
masters — such as Picasso, Matisse, and all those people —
are gone. And we don't have people, let us say, weathering
as long or as heavy as these people did, and they're not
making the strong impact.
PHILLIPS: Like it's not a life of painting. Someone like
Pollock, who was so influential, was gone, or ... .
WOELFFER: It's a much lighter thing, and it's much more
fleeting. There are so many more people involved today.
PHILLIPS: There have been radical changes in art-making,
in directions. Not necessarily with individual painters.
Someone like Bob Motherwell, there's a very . . .
WOELFFER: . . . there's a definite . . .
PHILLIPS: • . . there's a definite progression there.
WOELFFER: Right, but he's rare, and he is one of the people
of our particular generation who is still working, and there
are very few of them at this point.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. But what's going on with art-making with,
say, people under thirty-five? There are people who are
still painting, people who are very involved with that. But
there are all of these other directions going on.
WOELFFER: Yeah, conceptual, and the process art, and the
video, and all of these things.
PHILLIPS: You see a lot of that, teaching?
WOELFFER: Yes, all over the country.
PHILLIPS: Yes, and what's your reaction to it?
WOELFFER: Well, to me, video is rather boring, and I'm told
that is because I'm used to the fleeting moment of tele-
vision, commercial television. But I find in the video and
performances a great lack of professionalism, which doesn't
exist. It's very amateurish. Video things look like home
PHILLIPS: But the language of painting is a very slow
process, and not fleeting, certainly, and you've been used
to that quietness that goes along with looking at painting
and making things, which is very close to meditation.
WOELFFER: There are still many painters today, young
painters--it ' s amazing how I find many of them say, "I'm
going to start work in oil paint." We all started painting
in oil paints, and the younger people, they all started
painting in acrylics, and now they're going from acrylics to
oil paint. But I find in much of the work a major interest
in the surface of the canvas, in the painting, rather than
in the imagery. It's a kind of a painting that I think
Pollock had a big influence on. It's a kind of a painting
that had no beginning or no end, so you can turn out miles
PHILLIPS: It looks like an exercise.
WOELFFER: An exercise, very interesting — the surface and
the feeling of the texture of the paint, and so on.
PHILLIPS: Whereas in a painting by you, or by Bob Motherwell,
one has the feeling that there's a definite imagery and
WOELFFER: Right, there's a certain symbolism that is in the
PHILLIPS: It's not part of the series.
PHILLIPS: It could stand on its own. Well, you wanted to
talk about the jam sessions in Chicago.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes, at this particular time, from '45 on,
Hugo Weber, the sculptor, and myself had a commission to do
a club in Chicago called Jazz Limited. In fact, it didn't
happen that way. They came to me and wanted to know if I
had any students that would do an interior of a club. And
Hugo and I thought, well, it's quite a challenging thing;
let's do it ourselves. So we did the whole thing ourselves.
And the club, which is now defunct, was called Jazz Limited.
We used to frequent it, I'm sure, at least once or twice a
week. We met many of the musicians, and the musicians used
to come over to my studio. We'd have Sunday afternoon jam
sessions, where we had everybody from Momma Yancey, Jimmy
Yancey, Chippie Hill, Bunk Johnson, Bill Reed, Al Tabasco,
and just literally dozens and dozens of musicians. And our
place got to be known as a place to come after hours, and
there wasn't a week going by when some musicians who were in
town wouldn't come over after work. One of them that fre-
quented our place was Pee Wee Russell, the fabulous clarinet
player. It was the sort of a place they could come and really
play the kind of jazz they wanted to, and then Sunday, as I
said, we'd have open Sundays, and whatever musicians were in
town would come over, and literally hundreds of people would
come. So we had quite an active studio for jazz.
PHILLIPS: Is there anything else you want to add about
those Chicago years?
WOELFFER: When we left for Chicago — I think it's on the
other tape — we took off for Yucatan.
PHILLIPS: All right. Well, then, let's go to 1959 and your
arrival in Los Angeles.
WOELFFER: Yes. I had a position waiting for me at Chouinard
Art Institute, through Mitch Wilder. And it was through
Paul Kantor, who was my dealer, that we rented Richards
Ruben's house and studio in Mt. Washington. Dick was
another painter. So we came directly from Chicago to the
house and studio on Mt. Washington, where we stayed about
three years before we moved to the place where we're now
PHILLIPS: What was Paul Kantor like in those days, and what
was his gallery like?
WOELFFER: Well, Paul was showing at that time a painter by
the name of [Douglas] Snow, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer
Bischoff, Ynez Johnston, Jules Engel, and myself. I think
this made up the gallery. And this was just before Paul
started getting into the German expressionist painters. I
think he started out with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. And then
from there, he moved into some of the French and some of the
New York painters, and he started working with the big
blue-chip painters, and this is about the time when some of
his gallery people started leaving. I was next to the last
to leave, and I went with [Ed] Primus and [David] Stuart. I
think Ynez was the last to leave — she stayed on till the
very end, when Paul was not dealing with any contemporary
PHILLIPS: What was he like when you first met him, in
terms of his response to contemporary art? I mean, he was
really very involved at one time.
WOELFFER: I met him in Colorado Springs, when he came out
to visit the Byrneses. He was very excited about my work,
and, in fact, he gave me ray first show out here. And we did
quite well. He sold quite well for me. In fact, he kept
us in Europe for those two years. When I came back, to move
to Los Angeles, I had a big show there which was quite
successful. The only thing Paul didn't do for his painters
was to try to get an Eastern and a European exposure.
PHILLIPS: Do you feel that that's been a continuing problem
with California painters? I mean by that people who happen
to live in California and paint.
WOELFFER: Yeah, that's the same thing that happened to
painters living and working in Chicago. It's still happening,
And Paul had some very good shows. He had Raymond Parker,
who used to come out here. And right next to Paul's gallery
on Camden Drive, there was Frank Perls, who had a gallery,
who showed some California painters — Robert Chuey and the
like. Also Picasso and Matisse and Giacometti, the French.
PHILLIPS: Perls showed the more conservative, traditional,
contemporary painters, didn't he? Those California painters
who were more academic?
WOELFFER: Right, yeah.
PHILLIPS: Were you aware of the influence of the so-called
[Rico] Lebrun school?
WOELFFER: I was very aware of that. That was very strong —
Lebrun, Howard Warshaw, and the Herbert Jepson school.
Herbert Jepson had a school with Lebrun, and I think Warshaw
was a teacher, and they were all in that vein of heavy a la
Picassoesque draftsmanship work.
PHILLIPS: I'm sure you thought it was a more conservative
approach to art-making than yours.
WOELFFER: It was very conservative to me.
PHILLIPS: And they were very influential with students and
certain collectors and critics in town.
WOELFFER: Right, right, yes.
PHILLIPS: What other galleries do you think of that were
open when you were here, and did you go much?
WOELFFER: There was the Ferus Gallery. And there was a
gallery that opened across the street. Henry Hopkins
opened a gallery or worked for somebody, directed a gallery.
And he didn't stay very long; he went to the County Museum
of Art. There was the Felix Landau gallery, and Ralph
Altman's gallery of primitive art, which was quite wonderful.
And I was then with Primus and Stuart, who eventually broke
up, and it became just the David Stuart Gallery. And I went
with David, where I remained until about 19-, oh, '65, I
think, or '66, somewhere in there. In the meantime, Herbie
Stothart, Mary Wescher's son, had a school in Puria, San
Memeta, just out of Lugano, in the Italian area of Switzer-
land. And I spent, I think, two suinmers up there teaching.
PHILLIPS: Before we talk about the Puria experience, let's
go back to your early years in Los Angeles. What other
artists did you see during that period? Who else was
teaching at Chouinard?
WOELFFER: Richards Ruben was there, and Robert Chuey, Nob
Hadeshi. It was, oh, a little later on when Matsumi
Kanemitsu came from New York. He took my place when I
went to Europe on a Guggenheim. Billy Al Bengston used to
come around quite a bit. We used to have lunch with him
and Bob Irwin, and that was about the art circle I was in
at that particular time.
PHILLIPS: I know it was a different time, but how did it
compare to your life in Chicago, the life here?
WOELFFER: Well, in my postschool days, the WPA, there was
much more of a camaraderie with the painters than there
was out here. Of course, I think one of the things — the
distances in Los Angeles make quite a difference. In
Chicago, most all the painters lived on the Near North Side.
Nobody ever thought of owning an automobile in Chicago;
everybody walked to where they were going. It was so close-
knit — the Near North Side, which is sort of like the Village
in New York. Los Angeles is so spread out, and people live
here and there, and I feel this is one reason why we don't
find this sort of thing of the painters getting together.
Well, there was the Barney's Beanery at one time, where the
painters used to meet. But Chicago, there was Ricardo ' s
Restaurant, and always the Art Institute. Out here there
are many galleries. In Chicago in those days there were
only two or three galleries, and they did not show any of
the local people. There weren't any galleries in the
forties that showed local painters.
PHILLIPS: What was your reaction to the Los Angeles County
Museum when you came here?
WOELFFER: The museum at that time was in Exposition Park,
and my whole thing, after living somewhat in New York and
Chicago, was not being able to see a great collection in the
PHILLIPS: It was disappointing to you.
WOELFFER: Very disappointing, yes.
PHILLIPS: How do you feel the growth of the museiom has been?
Do you feel there's a great collection there now?
WOELFFER: I think that it's coming along very slowly, but
I don't think they have the space at this point.
PHILLIPS: Was there anyone who was working at the museum
that you had contact with? Did you know Jim Elliott?
WOELFFER: Yeah. Jim Elliott--we became quite good friends
and I'm glad to see that he's coming back now to San Francisco,
But when they had the juried and invitational show, I think
it was quite exciting. They'd have the openings, and all
the painters would get together. One thing I recall was
Virginia Kondratieff had her gallery, the Dwan Gallery, and
she threw some fabulous affairs where all the painters could
come to meet — but the scene today is a completely different
one, which is to be expected. Things don't always stay the
same. The new generation of painters, they come on much
faster. It used to be ten years; now I think it's every
three or four years, there's a whole new group coming on.
PHILLIPS: And so many more of them.
WOELFFER: So many more of them, right.
PHILLIPS: And having shows . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . first year out of art school.
WOELFFER: Right, right. Or while they're in art school.
PHILLIPS: And showing at small shows at the Pasadena Museum
or the County Museum and not being heard of thereafter.
PHILLIPS: That happens very quickly. I know one thing I
wanted to ask you: what did you think of the Ferus Gallery?
Did you go to many of those shows? Did you know Irving
WOELFFER: Yes. I knew Irving and Walter Hopps, and I
remember the first big Richards Ruben show, the black
paintings that he did with a broom.
PHILLIPS: The Claremont series.
WOELFFER: Claremont — very impressive, very good painting.
And then there were some very rich paintings of Bob Irwin
at that particular time. And then everything, all of a
sudden, started to get very cool and minimal, very precious.
PHILLIPS: That was happening all over the country.
WOELFFER: That was happening all over the country, sort of
a lack of vitality--raaybe not a lack, but a different kind
of vitality, a kind that I was not used to. And then, of
course, came the hard-edge painting. Then came pop art,
which Virginia got into quite heavy with [Claes] Oldenburg
and Andy Warhol. And Arman [Armand Fernandez] and Martial
Raysse, the French painter from Nice.
PHILLIPS: Do you remember any shows at the County Museum
or particular shows at galleries that struck you?
WOELFFER: Well, the County Museum had a great Mir6 show
which I thought was quite fabulous. And then the Greenberg
show that I happened to be in was quite an interesting show.
This is about the time when the kind of antivigorous paint-
ing was coming about.
It was called "Post-Painterly Abstraction."
And you were included in the show?
I was included in the show.
PHILLIPS: Did Greenberg come to your studio?
WOELFFER: No, Greenberg just called me up and said, "Put a
couple of things in." I don't know how disappointed he was,
but anyway--they were flat paintings, but they were pretty
thick. And then the Dwan Gallery had some very exciting
exhibitions of Yves Klein, who came out here; he was quite
an exciting individual. And in a completely different
WOELFFER: And Paul [Kantor] had some very good shows of
some of the heavies.
PHILLIPS: The de Kooning show.
PHILLIPS: Well, let me ask you what your own painting was
like during these years that v;e were talking about. What
kind of thing were you doing in the early sixties, for
WOELFFER: I think they were pretty expressionistic , as they
remain, as they are today. I did have a phase, or a period,
between what I'm doing now and those paintings, which was a
lip series, and a series that came from my torn paper collages,
which were when I first went into working with acrylic paint
and found that they weren't as manipulative as the oil paint.
And my painting at that point, the lip series, and the torn
paper collage series took on a much flatter look. And I was
being accused of being a hard-edge painter, and they weren't
hard-edge at all. They might have been a little more severe,
but they certainly weren't hard-edge in the sense that we
talk about hard-edge painting, such as McLaughlin, or some of
the Larry Bell paintings, and those sort of things.
PHILLIPS: I know that Clement Greenberg always liked your
painting, because he said so, and he's liked your shows in
WOELFFER: Right. Yeah, he came to my show last February in
New York, and Dina talked to him. I left early, but she spent
some time with him.
PHILLIPS: What do you think about his influence in American
painting--and, let's say, the role of the critics in general?
WOELFFER: I think he's quite influential with the group of
people that he works with, Helen Frankenthaler and [Kenneth]
Noland. I've heard from people that he now and then says to
Noland, "Why don't we try something like this?" or, "Let's go
vertical," or, "Let's do something like that." And he tends
to mold, or he's like the conductor of an orchestra who has
all these people and makes various suggestions to them, in
what direction to go, etc.
PHILLIPS: He has been accused of being very manipulative of
painters whom he's supported. A lot of people are critical
of him. But he does have a great eye, and he has a theory.
PHILLIPS: And he is about the only well-established art
critic who does, whether you agree with it or not.
TAPE NUl^ER: III, SIDE TWO
MARCH 23, 1976
PHILLIPS: Last time, you were talking about when you'd
completed a series of paintings, that you'd put them up
against the wall and decide which ones had made it, which
ones could live, and I wonder what goes on in your mind when
you begin evaluating your own work.
WOELFFER: Well, I guess I weigh one against the other, in
relation to color, form, shape, whatever. And it's--well, I
don't know. It just happens.
PHILLIPS: It's a feeling.
WOELFFER: A feeling you have. This one goes; this one
stays, you know. Just like when I go in a gallery or a
museum and look at paintings, I say, "This is it, and that
one isn't." I don't know.
PHILLIPS: And it's hard to justify the basis on which one
WOELFFER: Right, right. Some are more exciting than others.
PHILLIPS: I think it's hard to justify how one evaluates
abstract paintings because other people want you to put it
in a very verbal fashion.
PHILLIPS: And that's really not the language.
WOELFFER: And then I look at them in relation to where they
came from in my own work, you know, whether I've gone back
or whether I've really gone ahead or whatever. So I don't
only see them in relation to each other, but I see them in
relation to my whole body of work.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and that's a felt knowledge that's been
developed over a lifetime.
WOELFFER: Yes, right.
PHILLIPS: During your early days in Los Angeles, did you
run into Betty Asher?
WOELFFER: Yes, I ran into Betty Asher, I think, during the
days of the Primus-Stuart Gallery. She just started at
that particular time becoming interested in California
painters, and I think that she said my big painting The Kiss ,
which she just gave to the Newport Harbor Museum, was her
first major purchase. And she said it was quite something
for her. She's always been enthusiastic about painters and
PHILLIPS: And did you see Leonard Edmondson during those
WOELFFER: Yes. When I arrived, I was asked to become a
trustee of the Pasadena Art Museum, which I did.
PHILLIPS: That was during the period when they had artists
on the board.
WOELFFER: They had artists on the board as well as other
business trustees. And I think Jules Langsner and Leonard
Edmondson and myself were the artists.
PHILLIPS: Artists' representatives.
WOELFFER: Artists' representatives. And we sort of worked
with Mrs. [EudorahJ Moore in making decisions and reviewing
people submitting work for one-man shows, and I think we
were the jury of that sort of thing.
PHILLIPS: What was the Pasadena Museum like in those days?
WOELFFER: I've always enjoyed it, but they couldn't always
have all the Klees up. But Tom Leavitt was, I think, the
PHILLIPS: The first director you knew.
WOELFFER: The first director I knew, yes. In 1963 I had a
retrospective show there, with about seventy-five works,
loaned from myself and borrowed from collections around the
Los Angeles area mainly. And then June Wayne and Clinton
Adams, Tamarind litho workshop, got their grant from the Ford
Foundation. I was invited. I was given a grant there to do
several editions of lithographs. I think that was in 1961,
PHILLIPS: What was June like in those days?
WOELFFER: Well, I'd known her from the early days of Chicago,
on the WPA artists project, and the Artists Union, and she
was just a little more intensified than she was then. But
she always was a spokesman for the artists, seeing that the
artists had a fair shake, and always interested in art in
relation to the community, etc. And it was a real wonderful
thing, this revitalizing the art of lithography which had
been dead up to this point.
PHILLIPS: She really did that, didn't she? She was the
WOELFFER: Yeah, she did that. Not only did she invite
painters to do lithographs, but she trained people to become
master printers for other artists. And they went back to
their various hamlets, wherever they came from, and would
usually open up their own print workshops and serve the
artists of those various communities.
PHILLIPS: Tell me about Chouinard when you began teaching
there. Who was there?
WOELFFER: Mitch Wilder was the director, and Richards Ruben
was there, and Don Graham, and Herbert Jepson, and Edmond
Kohn, and John Canavier, the sculptor. And it was quite an
PHILLIPS: Were the students good?
WOELFFER: The students were very good. There was a wonderful
feeling amongst the students. I had students--I had Pat
Blackwell and Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Tom Wudl, and who's the
boy that does . . . ? Charles Arnoldi. And the boy who does
the big . . . ? Ron Cooper. I had all of those people who are
today some of the younger important painters and sculptors in
PHILLIPS: Were there one or two of them that you got to know
WOELFFER: At the time of school, and then when they left
school, they moved to various parts of Los Angeles, mainly
Venice, and I only run into them occasionally at openings at
LAICA or something like that.
PHILLIPS: When did Gerry Nordland come to Chouinard?
WOELFFER: Gerry Nordland — I think there was an assistant
director who was at one time the head of the foundation out
at Will Rogers Park. What was the name of that? Ynez
I Johnston] had a grant up there.
PHILLIPS: Oh, the Huntington Hartford Foundation.
WOELFFER: Right, and he was a musician; he was assistant
director for a while. And then he left, and I introduced
Gerry to Mitch Wilder at your house.
PHILLIPS: You'd known Gerry since you first came to Los
WOELFFER: I knew Gerry before I met Gerry. He saw a paint-
ing of mine in a show that Jimmy Byrnes put on, an American
show, invited show, at the County Museum. Gerry was quite mad
about it and wrote me — I was living in Colorado Springs--
and eventually he purchased a painting. It was some years
later when I met Gerry — very enthusiastic fellow about
art, and he became quite a museum director. He was at
Chouinard, I think, for about two years. When Mitch Wilder
left, Gerry became the director of Chouinard, and then I
think that lasted two years, and he went to Washington, B.C.
PHILLIPS: But he's someone you've always been very close to.
WOELFFER: Very close to, yes. He has his feet on the
ground. I think he's one of the last of that kind of museum
PHILLIPS: Who's really interested in the artists and paint-
WOELFFER: He has that look of the old museum director out
of Yale or Princeton; he has that look in his dress and
PHILLIPS: Ivy League.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, yeah. Well, let's go through your Los
Angeles chronology. After Chouinard closed, then what did
WOELFFER: I stayed on at Chouinard for the last year because
there were some students who'd signed a contract that they
weren't going to go to Cal Arts. So they had to keep the school
open for one year, and Kanemitsu, and myself ....
PHILLIPS: Chouinard phased out and eventually closed down
and became part of the California Institute of the Arts.
WOELFFER: And before that, in 1967, I received a Guggenheim
grant and had to find a replacement because I was going to go
to New York for some time. So I had contacted Kanemitsu in
New York, and he was delighted to come out here and take my
place because his wife was from out here and they were about
to have a child. So on my way to Europe, I saw Kanemitsu
and wished him good luck, and he came out here, and he's
been out here ever since. And he's now at Otis, working
with me. But when the school was phased out, I went the
first year of the new campus up at Valencia, which was this
huge, huge, factorylike building. Paul Brach had become the
dean of the art school. Paul, whom I'd known many years--
I met him when he and his wife Mimi [Miriam Shapiro] were
graduate students at the University of Iowa. I went out
there to jury a show in, I think, 1946, when I first met
them. Then I met them again at Tamarind when he was on a
Tamarind grant, he and Mimi, and then he became the dean of
the art department of California Institute of the Arts.
PHILLIPS: What do you think his contribution was during
his four years out here? Do you think he made quite a sub-
stantial contribution to the school?
WOELFFER: I don't think so. The art school was always the
weakest part of the institute, and it still is. I think
they're down to two teachers. Their enrollment is very
small. The strength of the school is the music and the
theater and the film department.
PHILLIPS: I've heard you before on the subject. I think you
feel that the art department was too unstructured for the
students, that it was too hard on undergraduate students . .
WOELFFER: Right, right.
PHILLIPS: . . . to be in such an unstructured environment.
WOELFFER: A student would come in, and for the first day of
meeting with the students, they were told that they were
artists, go ahead and do their thing. They were completely
lost. Many of them were just out of high school. It was
much different in the music department because before you
went into the music school, you were trained in some kind of
instrument, and you really had to know how to play the
instrument and prove it before you could get into the music
PHILLIPS: And your lifestyle did not entitle you to be an
WOELFFER: Right, right. Before I went to Cal Arts, I think
I had another couple of sessions in Europe with Herbie ' s
school in Switzerland. I think it was in 1971, David Stuart
called me and said somebody from Arco was coming here from
New York. The building was then in progress of being built,
and they were inviting a group of painters to show their
work, with the idea of purchase. And I had just completed
three large canvases from my collages I had done in Paris,
and Lee Morgan invited one of them to a show at the
Philadelphia Museum. It received an award, and when that
came back, I sent that plus the other two paintings to the
Atlantic Richfield viewing, and they purchased all three of
them — which immediately took us back to Europe again for a
certain length of time.
PHILLIPS: When did you first go to Puria, to teach at Herb
WOELFFER: Nineteen sixty-two was my first summer. And I
think '64 I went to Puria, and then in '65 we stopped by
there because I had a grant from the State Department to
go to Turkey for six months.
PHILLIPS: Now, Herb Stothard had a school in Puria, in a
small village, and he had American students.
WOELFFER: Yeah, mostly students whose parents had business
interests, or their companies, around Europe. And Herb
taught art history and I taught painting.
PHILLIPS: Those must have been quite delightful summers for
VJOELFFER: They were very nice. They were very light —
nothing heavy. And most of that was very enjoyable.
PHILLIPS: And the Weschers were there.
WOELFFER: Paul and Mary Wescher were there.
PHILLIPS: And Paul's a wonderful person with whom to be in
WOELFFER: Right, right. And we had some wonderful trips
together. When 1 went over there on the Guggenheim in '67,
the French government gave roe a studio a block away from the
Notre Dame-- the Cite Internationale des Arts, a building
that somebody put up for artists all over the world to come
in and work. I spent a couple, three months there.
PHILLIPS: What other artists were there while you were
WOELFFER: Some artists that I didn't know of. There were
some from Czechoslovakia and some from Italy. I didn't know
any; nobody seemed to get together. Everybody went up and
went into their room and closed the door, and there wasn't
any kind of get-together at all with the people.
PHILLIPS: And what other artists had been there in the
past, do you recall?
WOELFFER: I don't know; they never handed out a list or
said so-and-so had been here or anything else. Afterward
I recommended other painters going to Europe to see if they
could get a space in the building.
PHILLIPS: I'm reminded of something else, which is your
great interest in primitive art, and I suppose you began
collecting when you came to Los Angeles in a heavier kind of
VTOELFFER: Right. Paul Kantor had some pieces, and we made
PHILLIPS: David Stuart.
WOELFFER: David Stuart and Primus. And then almost every
trip we had to Europe, we always picked up pieces when we
PHILLIPS: And there was that beautiful show that Jimmy
Byrnes put on in Newport Beach just recently that involved
you and Erie Loran and Lee Mullican and Richard Haley, "The
Artist Collects." It's a beautiful catalog, and there's a
wonderful statement from you in that, on your feeling about
primitive art and its relationship to your work.
WOELFFER: Yeah, right. And then I also picked up much of
it when we came back from our last venture in Europe. I
was asked to be artist-in-residence at Honolulu Art Academy
for four and a half months. So we went over there in 1973,
and there were several collectors over there. In fact, one
man was about to put his collection of Oceania on auction in
New York at Parke Bernet , and I was able to pick up many
good pieces from him. So it seems wherever I go , I find
something here and there. And on all these trips while we
were over there--this is when Dina started to do her series
of tombs of artists and writers and musicians and theatrical
people around Europe, mainly in Paris.
PHILLIPS: Yes, she took pictures of tombs of famous artists
and other creative people, and from that she's made several
WOELFFER: Right, she had a show that started with Gerry
iNordlandJ at the San Francisco Museum and traveled, I think.
to six or seven other museums around the country.
PHILLIPS: Yes, and finally ended up at the Jodi Scully
Gallery in Los Angeles. Let's see, do you want to talk a
little more about your reaction to that summer in Honolulu?
WOELFFER: We arrived there, I think, about the twenty-
sixth of January and came back about the first of June. When
we arrived there, we were put up in some kind of a motel.
And we stayed there two days, and I luckily found a wonderful
apartment in the Colony Surf, right next to the Outrigger
Canoe Club--fifth floor, looking down at the beach and out
at the fantastic sunsets every night. Honolulu Academy gave
me a wonderful studio, which I think I put my foot in once.
They were quite disappointed in me. I spent all my free
time lying on the beach. [laughter] I did some island
hopping and gave some lectures at Kona and a few other
PHILLIPS: You enjoyed the people there quite a bit.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes, they were very warm. It was wonderful.
And the food and just everything was just great. I don't
think I could do it as a steady diet because I don't think
I'd get any work done, really.
PHILLIPS: They talk about Southern California being soft,
but it's even softer in Honolulu. [laughter]
WOELFFER: Softer in Honolulu. A lot of painters over there,
and the work is not very vigorous.
PHILLIPS: You do feel there is a connection between the
environment and the stimulation and the quality of work.
WOELFFER: Oh, very definitely. I think that the French
impressionists, they really started in Paris, and later on,
when they were established and found their way, their direc-
tion, then they moved on down to the French Riviera, as you
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and true of the New York abstract expres-
sionists, too. They all put their time in in the big, hard
city, and then they moved out to Connecticut or Long
Island or wherever.
WOELFFER: Gauguin did it in Paris, and then he went to
PHILLIPS: And you, in a way, put in your time in Chicago.
WOELFFER: In Chicago, right, and then came out here. So
that environment, I think, in the very beginning is
really needed. Many times I suggest to my students, you
know, when they get out of school, to go to New York for a
year or so, or go to Europe and try something out there.
PHILLIPS: Tell me about that experience in Turkey, because
that was interesting.
WOELFFER: Let's see, on our way to Turkey . . .
PHILLIPS: You were appointed by the State Department, and
it was for six months, and you were to go to Ankara.
WOELFFER: I went to Ankara, arrived in Ankara, with my work.
PHILLIPS: What was the purpose of your visit?
WOELFFER: Well, the idea was mainly to contact the painters
of Turkey and tell them what is happening in our country.
And I took hundreds of slides with me, which I left to the
library in Turkey, and dozens of books on contemporary art.
PHILLIPS: Slides of American contemporary art.
WOELFFER: American contemporary art. And I lectured on
that all over Turkey. And when I was in Ankara, they had
somebody design a building, an art gallery and theater,
which was completely unfunctional. If you were on the left
or right side of the theater, you couldn't see the stage.
And if you were in the balcony, you were just on top of the
stage--it was terrifying, like you'd fall down three stories.
And the art gallery used cement walls that you could not put
nails into, so I redesigned the whole art gallery, made it
PHILLIPS: In other words, you had to bring them a lot of
very practical knowledge about how to place lighting and
how to put nails in the wall.
WOELFFER: I did the whole thing. And then after that was
over with, we went to Gaziantep and to Ismir and to, oh,
many, many places--to Istanbul and lectured on American
painting, with the slides. I lectured in English, and I had
a translator, who translated in Turkish. And it was quite
interesting, going back into the villages, where the women
still wear the veils, and the men wear these jodhpur pants,
you know, expecting to catch Allah. When he comes back the
next time he ' s going to come from a man rather than from a
woman, and they wear these jodhpurs with the big seats so
they can catch him when he comes out. And we went to the
American Hospital Institution and School in Gaziantep, and
on our way to a lecture one night, some little lady said,
"My, you look just like my Uncle Ernest." And I paid no
attention to that, and after the lecture, we went back to
the American Hospital, and they had coffee and cake, and I
said, "What did you mean--that I remind you of your Uncle
Ernest?" She said, "My Uncle Ernest was Uncle Ernest
Hemingway." Because Hemingway's brother was a missionary.
Hemingway's brother was a missionary for years and years in
China, and this was his daughter, who was still a missionary,
PHILLIPS: You saw some of the prehistoric ruins in Turkey.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes. We went to Ephesus and many places.
They were just absolutely fantastic. Many of them were
destroyed because the Ottoman Empire, you know--it was
against their religion, the Moslem religion, to create man
in any other form, so in their wars many of these beautiful
statues were just destroyed.
PHILLIPS: That had been left by the Greeks and Romans.
WOELFFER: Right. The noses were off, and the heads were
chopped off, and so on.
PHILLIPS: You find travel very stimulating and refreshing.
WOELFFER: After I get there, but not the getting there,
[laughter] We haven't been anyplace for quite a few years
at this point.
PHILLIPS: Do you want to go back to Europe?
WOELFFER: Dina ' s ready. We were thinking about it. Hans
Wengler was here a few months ago, and he is on a grant
from the German government. They are building a building
designed by Gropius many years ago which is going to house
the archives of the Black Mountain College, the Chicago
Bauhaus , the Weimar Bauhaus , and the Ulra Bauhaus . And he
was out here interviewing people who were a part of the
Chicago Bauhaus and asked if I would send them a painting
that they would eventually want to purchase for the Chicago
archives. He also was wondering whether I would like a
grant to Germany this coming year, to talk in Germany
about the Chicago Bauhaus, which I said I'd like very much.
PHILLIPS: So do you think that'll come through?
I hope it will.
But what part of Germany will you go to?
Berlin. And I hear there are some fabulous
museums there, collections I'd like to see.
PHILLIPS: Oh, yes. And you can see your friend George
Rickey; he has a studio there.
WOELFFER: That's what I understand.
PHILLIPS: And Ed Keinholz.
WOELFFER: Ulfert Wilke just returned, and he has an
apartment-studio which he keeps all the time in Munich, and
we're completely welcome to it at any time.
PHILLIPS: That would be really exciting for you. One person
in Los Angeles you must have run into over and over again
was Fred Wight.
WOELFFER: Oh, yes. Well, I ran into Fred Wight long before
he came out here, and before I came out here. My first meet-
ing with Fred Wight was in Chicago, when I had just returned
from Yucatan in 1950. He came to visit me in Chicago. He
was then with the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston,
and he was organizing a large show of about six painters, and
I was one of them. And that's when I first met Fred Wight.
And the next time I met him was about 1952 or '53 in Colorado
Springs. He was one of the people interviewed for the posi-
tion of director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center,
so I had another occasion to meet him. And then in many
shows that he had put on, I was always included.
PHILLIPS: So you felt that he was supportive of your work.
WOELFFER: Yes, very much so.
PHILLIPS: Do you have any comments about the UCLA art gallery
and its functions during the years you've been in Los Angeles?
WOELFFER: I think it's doing a magnificent job.
PHILLIPS: You liked that Matisse show.
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. I think it does as much if not more
maybe than some of the local museums, really.
In terms of modern art.
You've liked the shows.
I liked the shows. They had the great [Jean]
Arp show, the Matisse show, and then Gerry put on the show
of the sculptor, Gaston Lachaise. I think they really serve
the art community admirably out here.
PHILLIPS: Good. And Fred was the founding director of that.
WOELFFER: Gerry's carrying on. [tape recorder turned off]
The exhibitions I had out here in this period, I think,
started with the rather large one, the first summer I was
on a teaching grant, at the La Jolla art center.
PHILLIPS: Were you living down there all summer?
WOELFFER: I went all summer, and I filled up all the
galleries. I had a semiretrospective exhibition.
PHILLIPS: Who was the director there then?
WOELFFER: Don . . . Brewer. And Guy Williams was teaching
down there. I first met Guy and another fellow who was
assistant director who's now a painter in New York. And
Malcolm McLain, the sculptor, who is now a poet.
PHILLIPS: Do you remember what year that was, in La Jolla?
WOELFFER: That must have been '61. I'm pretty sure — '61.
And then the following summer I taught the summer class at USC.
PHILLIPS: And how was that teaching down there? What
impression did you have of that art department?
WOELFFER: I had mainly football players in my drawing
PHILLIPS: Was it an easy course? [laughter]
WOELFFER: They had to keep their grades up, so they had an
PHILLIPS: Were there any people in the department who
WOELFFER: No, the summer school was very light. There
weren't too many people around at that particular time. And
I think it was '65 that I had again a one-man shov^7 at the
Santa Barbara museum.
PHILLIPS: Who was the director there?
WOELFFER: I think Tom Leavitt was the director there. He
moved from Pasadena to Santa Barbara. And then I also had
a show at a commercial gallery, the Quay Gallery in San
Francisco, in 1965.
PHILLIPS: How did you like Tom Leavitt, and what sort of
person was he?
WOELFFER: I like him very much, very sincere person, who
had quite a hold on himself — very similar to Gerry, in a
PHILLIPS: Did you feel he had a good understanding of
WOELFFER: I felt he did. I don't know what happened after
that, because this was in the earlier period. I don't know
where he is; he is in the East someplace.
PHILLIPS: Cornell, I think.
WOELFFER: I know he had a large sum of money to put together
a permanent collection. But what happened after that with
painting — this was an earlier period. I don't know what his
tastes were, whether they continued to grow or not with the
newer kind of concepts and ideas that were coming in.
PHILLIPS: Did Henry Seldis give your show a good review in
WOELFFER: Yes. He always seems to give me a good review;
Seldis does, yes.
PHILLIPS: What do you think of Henry and his role at the
Los Angeles Times ?
WOELFFER: I like him. I think that a lot of people feel
he's too old-hat, but I don't think so. That's why he has
Bill Wilson. Now he has another Miss Isenberg on his staff.
With that group they cover all the ideas and concepts pretty
PHILLIPS: And it is, after all, a newspaper and not an art
journal, so they have to be reportorial in what they do.
WOELFFER: Exactly, right, right.
PHILLIPS: A lot of people have complained that there have
never been enough art writers in Los Angeles.
WOELFFER: Well, I think that's true in relation to the
national and international art magazines. Jules Langsner
for a while wrote for Art International , and then for a long
time they had no coverage of California or West Coast paint-
ing or art. And now recently I see that Gerry Nordland is
writing for Art International . And Arts magazine. And
Artforum, which started out quite strongly as a California
magazine, and then was taken over and moved to New York. Now
they seem to cover Los Angeles fairly well, but only a
particular kind of art.
PHILLIPS: What do you think of Peter Plagens?
WOELFFER: I know Peter; I read his things. They're very
difficult for me to read. Sometimes he doesn't make too much
sense about what he's writing about. He seems to reveal quite
a bit about himself, more about his personal feelings than
about his subject matter, which I think happens frequently to
PHILLIPS: Did you read his Sunshine Muse ?
WOELFFER: I haven't. I've just glanced through; I haven't
sat down to read it yet. But I think it's a good thing--
it's needed, showing the history of West Coast painting. At
this point, I don't know how accurate it is, but from what
I've glanced through, he seems to have covered quite a bit
of everything, all the artists.
PHILLIPS: Some people feel that he hasn't done too well in
terms of covering the past.
WOELFFER: Well, he is quite young, and. . . . Jules was a
good critic, I think--Jules Langsner.
PHILLIPS: Yes, I agree. Do you want to talk some about
your shows at the Jodi Scully gallery?
WOELFFER: I had, I think, two shows there. Those were my
last shows. My last one was, I think, two, maybe three,
years ago. Now the time goes so fast.
PHILLIPS: Do you feel that they've been a successful gallery
in Los Angeles, have added much to the life here?
WOELFFER: I think they have for certain people, for a certain
kind of art. I'm no longer with them. I'm laying low for a
PHILLIPS: One other chronological thing was the show you had
at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. The works in
that were part of the show that had been at Newport Beach.
WOELFFER: Yes, that was quite exciting for me, that show.
In fact, we went to Washington to see the show. At that time,
I had received a National Endowment [for the Arts] grant
which enabled us to stop in Chicago, Washington, and New
Orleans. So we stopped in Washington, had a wonderful after-
noon with ...
PHILLIPS: . . . Laughlin Phillips? Gifford's cousin,
WOELFFER: Gifford's cousin, and the assistant . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . Richard Friedman, who was the curator of
the gallery, then.
WOELFFER: Right. And we went out for lunch, and we were
taken through the whole collection, which was quite beautiful-
I think one of the very, very fine collections. And it was
through that exhibition that I got a show the following
February in New York at the Poindexter Gallery, because she
[Ellie Poindexter] went down to see the show and wanted to
have that same show--which was impossible because most of the
works were from private collections and the pieces had been
out for some time. But I organized another show of newer
works that went to the Poindexter Gallery.
PHILLIPS: Good. Can you think of anything else about the
years in Los Angeles that you'd like to mention? We always
have time to do it later, if you'd like.
WOELFFER: Not offhand. It's very comfortable working here.
I like the feeling of the place and the people. I like the
contact among friends, and I seem to be able to produce quite
well here, and I think that is probably the main thing.
PHILLIPS: You talked about "laying low." That leads me to
ask you some more philosophical questions. What do you see
ahead as things you'd like to do?
WOELFFER: Not really anything that I can think of at this
particular point, but just to produce a fair body of work.
I'm anxious to get my things back — they're on their way back
now from New York, from my show there--and get all of my
things together, my works together, and sort of look them
over, and make some kind of decisions--about what I don't
know. But I have no interest, desire, to have another
three-week exhibition in some gallery out here--it comes and
it goes. Sometimes you feel it's a three-ring circus going
on: all these galleries having a show for three weeks, and
somebody else comes on and somebody else goes down, and it's
whatever happens. I'd like to be a little heavier than that.
I really don't know, as I say, what, at this time.
PHILLIPS: It would be nice to have a big retrospective.
WOELFFER: It would. The biggest one was at Pasadena, 1963.
Maybe it's too soon for another one; I don't know. I really
don't know. I haven't in fact even been thinking about it.
I just sort of feel relieved I'm not attached to any gallery
at this point.
PHILLIPS: Do you want to continue teaching? Does that
contact with students at an institution and other faculty
members mean a lot to you? Or have you had enough of it?
WOELFFER: I've had enough of it, especially the way things
are going today. Things are so diverse, with so many
students going into what they call performance and doing
what they call installation pieces and conceptual art, and
mostly going into this area. I don't find the kind of
seriousness as I have in the past in teaching with the
students, and I understand that's not unique here but that's
all over the country.
PHILLIPS; Nor unique to art departments.
WOELFFER: And I do have to retire in three years. It's
mandatory. And then if that happens, I might do some spots
here and there, maybe a semester here or a semester there,
something like that. But it's never interfered in my work.
I feel very much like Dick Diebenkorn does--he likes the
contact with the students. I'd like to work with a dozen
very, very serious painting students. In fact, this next
fall, I'm thinking of having a second-year class of just
figure painting, in oil paint. For very serious students.
And in three years when I get out, I don't know what I'll do.
As I say, I'll just continue painting. I'll be on a slight
kind of retirement affair — not too much because I haven't
been with the county for ten years. I never worry about
what's ahead of me. I take it as it comes.
PHILLIPS: As you look back on your long and creative and
productive life, how does it all seem to you?
WOELFFER: Just fine. I could have done more work. I think
most people feel that. They look at their things; they say,
"That's fine, but I could have done more, you know, could
have worked more. " But I think probably it is a natural
PHILLIPS: Do you wish some things had gone differently for you?
WOELFFER: Yes, oh, yes. I imagine when I did the move to
New York with the idea of staying and sticking it out in
New York when it was quite difficult, just after the war--I
suppose we should have stuck it out there even with the
difficulties. I think things would have been quite differ-
ent staying on the scene in New York, which I find you have
to do. If you're not there, it's quite difficult. That's
in terms of, you know, fame and fortune and that sort of
PHILLIPS: Yes. Which is, after all . . .
WOELFFER: Which is a part of it.
PHILLIPS: Which is part of it, but only one part of it.
WOELFFER: One part of it, right. There are people who get
it when they're young. Some of them would get it in the
middle; some of them would get it later in life; and some
would get it, as Duchamp says, after life. So, whatever.
That's the way it is. That's the way it happened.
TAPE NUMBER: IV [video session]
APRIL 30, 1976
PHILLIPS: We're in Emerson and Dina Woelffer's living room
in Los Angeles, with Rita Woelffer, Emerson's mother, and
Dina Woelffer, Emerson's wife, and Joann Phillips, interview-
ing. Emerson, we're sitting in the midst of this marvelous,
magical, primitive material, and I wonder if you might tell
me when you first became interested.
WOELFFER: I think it was when I was about ten or eleven
that they used to take the kids from school down to the
Field Museum in Chicago, mainly to see the dioramas and the
stuffed animals. And I would wander off, because I wasn't
interested in stuffed animals, to the other halls, where
they had the fantastic collection of New Guinea, Oceania,
African — things from New Hebrides, New Ireland, from all
those various areas. And the sort of magic of these things
used to really intrigue me.
PHILLIPS: When you were a young artist, first learning
about painting, what was going on in the art world of modern
painters at that time was very influenced by primitive art.
WOELFFER: Yes, Vlaminck and Derain were the first to collect
this material from an importer who would bring things over.
They brought over some material from Africa, and then they
introduced it, finally, to Braque, Matisse, and Picasso,
and some of the other modern painters. And it influenced
their work greatly.
PHILLIPS: Do you think that because it was a new kind of
material that they hadn't seen before that there was some-
thing very playful about it?
WOELFFER: Well, I think there was a definite relationship
of the simplicity of the carving with what they were also
trying to do with their own work. The cubist painters were
great collectors of African art, whereas the surrealist
painters collected the work from Oceania because of the more
magic content of the material.
PHILLIPS: I know that Picasso's cubist drawings were very
influenced by the structure of the African sculpture.
WOELFFER: Yes, the great painting. The Women of Avignon ,
they all seem to look like they were wearing an African mask,
as you recall. Picasso, himself, put himself in a painting
and painted his face like it were an African mask.
PHILLIPS: And now we're all very accepting of the influence
of this kind of material, but near the turn of the century,
it was a brand-new thing that hadn't been seen before.
WOELFFER: Yes. Now it has become a status. It's on the
market, just as stocks are, and of course when this happens,
we find many fakes today. Some of it's even being made in
Japan, and it's aged. It's put in the ground so the termites
will get it, so it's very difficult in purchasing any pieces
today unless you know what collection it came out of because
they're really not producing great pieces today.
PHILLIPS: Do you find that the people who are interested in
primitive art from the anthropological point of view and
archaeological point of view tend to be more interested in
the classifying and the description of the material rather
than the magical quality?
WOELFFER: Yes, yes. I find that very much, where I'm not
really interested in the piece in relation to the museum
quality of it or its age, but more the aesthetics of it, the
beauty of the carving and the patina of the wood, etc.
PHILLIPS: So it doesn't make too much difference to you
whether it's a very old piece or a very important piece; it's
more the emotional quality a piece exhibits.
WOELFFER: Right, right, exactly.
PHILLIPS: When you were living in Yucatan, what was that
period in your life?
WOELFFER: That was 1949. We were living in a village, Lerma
Campeche, on the Bay of Campeche in Yucatan. We lived there
for six months. And we went out on some of the digs, and we
brought back quite a fair collection of that material also.
PHILLIPS: And you became, I imagine, quite conversant with
pre-Columbian things during that period.
WOELFFER: Yes. Well, wherever we seem to go — we were in
Turkey for the State Department for six months a few years
ago, and I collected things there from Cappadocia, Roman
lamps and Greek things.
PHILLIPS: Do you feel that this kind of material and living
in the midst of it this way has had an influence on your
work, on your painting?
WOELFFER: Oh, very definitely, very definitely. I think
some sort of work both ways, in a sense. It influenced my
painting, and also the painting, in another sense, turned me
on to greater adventures in the primitive arts.
PHILLIPS: Would you like to point to a couple of the pieces
here that have special meaning for you? How about this
WOELFFER: Well, that's a very nice piece. It's part monkey,
it's part dog, and it's part antelope. They had a way of
combining the various animals all in one piece, and the third
here, the Senufu bird, and then we have the Senufu figure
back there that also has the head of a bird on it.
PHILLIPS: And are all of these things Senufu here?
WOELFFER: No, this is a Mali piece back here, this particular
one here, and they go up, sometimes, to twenty and thirty
feet tall. And this one, this just made it here — without
touching the ceiling.
PHILLIPS: Do they wear those things on their head in a dance?
WOELFFER: Yeah. If you notice, they're a mask. And then in
the back of the mask, there's two holes that go through that
they put a stick through, and they hold that stick in their
mouth in order to balance the mask. This one, of course, is
worn on the head. It's got a hollow piece underneath the
base, and that's worn on the head. It's quite heavy to move
around with. And of course they all have cloth coming down
from it or raffia, in order to hide the body.
Have you ever been to Africa?
And what about this piece, next to you?
This is Middle Sepik River, New Guinea. It's an
orator's stool. When they are talking, the orator will take
pieces of branches and pound them on the back part of the
stool to bring about attention or quiet or whatever. And
these are mainly in the men's houses in New Guinea.
PHILLIPS: Do you think we should send one to any of the
WOELFFER: Oh, yes, yeah. [laughter]
PHILLIPS: I wonder if we might talk about this Robert
Motherwell lithograph that's here, in the midst of all these
objects. I notice that it's the only painting in this part
of the room, and in a true Japanese modest style, you haven't
put any of your own things in this room.
WOELFFER: Well, I had one of mine that always existed there,
and last year, when we were in New York for my exhibition.
we went up to visit Bob in Connecticut. And this was just
coming off the press at that particular time, and I felt
really it was a beautiful lithograph, and we made a trade.
PHILLIPS: While the camera is focusing on the things within
the lithography here, it's a takeoff on one of his collages,
except that it's not real collage material, is it?
WOELFFER: No. The cigarette wrapper was placed and photo-
graphed, and then that was blown up through a photoprocess
and it was then transferred to the plate.
PHILLIPS: Yes. And the splatter quality comes out of his
indebtedness to surrealism.
WOELFFER: Yes, yeah, the automatic, the chance. That's
quite a large plate, and the paper printed is a handmade
paper. It had to be made to order in France.
PHILLIPS: And is that a cigarette wrapping?
WOELFFER: Yes. That's a brand of cigarettes, Bastos.
PHILLIPS: And that touches on his indebtedness to European
WOELFFER: Yes, right. He's right out of the cubist persua-
PHILLIPS: Yes, and coupled with surrealist elements.
WOELFFER: And collage, right.
PHILLIPS: And what is it that holds you to a painting like
that, that you find so appealing?
WOELFFER: I really don't know. It's one of those things.
when I see a work, whatever I see, it hits me inunediately ,
positively or negatively; and this hit me immediately
positively, as I said, to the point where I felt I had to
have one .
And he gave it to you, did he?
Did you exchange something?
I had a painting that he saw in a catalog that I
called Homage to R.M. that I did many, many years ago. And
I sent it to him, and some weeks later I got a call from a
framer out here. He said, "We have a Motherwell for you."
And he shipped the lithograph out here and had it framed for
me. It's beautiful. This is the way he wanted it, the way
he wanted it presented, with this kind of frame.
PHILLIPS: Now that we've seen the primitive objects that
mean so much in your life and in your painting and have
talked some about the Motherwell lithograph up here, and
before we go down to your studio to look at your work, there
are a couple of women here in your life that I'd like to
speak to. I wonder if we could talk to Rita, your mother.
How are you feeling today?
RITA WOELFFER: Pretty well, considering.
PHILLIPS: Well, how old are you, Rita?
RITA WOELFFER: I'm eighty-eight now, and I'll be eighty-nine
the seventh of May.
PHILLIPS: Well, that's wonderful. You're looking very well.
How long have you been living with Dina and Emerson?
RITA WOELFFER: I think it will be nine years this coming
PHILLIPS: Yes, and did you find Emerson an exceptional child
when he was growing up?
RITA WOELFFER: He never told me that he could draw, never.
He never drew at home or anything. And one day his teacher
came to visit me, and she said, "Do you know that Emerson is
quite an artist?" And I said, "Why, no. He never draws at
home." She said, "Well, he won a scholarship, and they sent
him to the Art Institute on Saturdays." And that's the first
time I ever knew that he painted.
PHILLIPS: You must be very proud of him now.
RITA WOELFFER: I certainly am.
PHILLIPS: Well, thank you for talking with us, and it's good
to see you. And I'd like you to see Dina Woelffer, Emerson's
wife, who's here. Emerson, is there any more that you want
to say about any of the objects in this room?
WOELFFER: No, I think not.
PHILLIPS: I think we got some good pictures of everything.
Good, well, thanks very much, then, and we'll go down to your
studio now and look at your paintings.
We're in your studio now, Emerson, and you and I are
looking at a very recent lithograph of yours [untitled] .
Would you tell me something about it?
WOELFFER: Oh, yes. It was completed about a month and a
half ago. June Wayne called me one day. She had some space
and wondered if I wanted to come over and do a lithograph,
and I said fine. So I went over and took some acrylic-on-
paper pictures over to see the master printer Richard
Hamilton--excuse me, Hamilton. I don't know his first name.
It's not Richard--that ' s the English painter. [Ed Hamilton]
But anyway, we sat down and discussed — he saw my work, so
he could make some suggestions on how to approach its techni-
cal things, and we came to a decision. And I went over the
following morning, and he had a couple, three zinc plates
ready for me, and I went to work. And in about an hour, I
came up with some stuff on three or four of the plates, and
he etched them. And we made some combination test proofs,
and I made a decision on a combination that I liked. I came
back the next morning when he had the colors mixed up that I
asked for, and we made a color test, and I then signed the
Bon a Tirer , which means if they're all like that one every-
thing is fine and the printer keeps that for his own collec-
tion. And that was it. And I came back some weeks later and
signed the edition.
PHILLIPS: You mentioned facetiously earlier to me that this
was your Bicentennial product because it was red, white, and
WOELFFER: Yeah, that was sort of an afterthought because in
the past, recent years, I seem to be working with these
colors. Ever since I was in Paris, I did a series of collages
based on the tricolor, which is the same colors of our flag —
red, white, and blue or blue, white, and red.
PHILLIPS: And that came from seeing all of the French flags
and kind of a European influence. I noticed too that very
smashing image in the middle of that lithograph is almost
like the Black nationalist fist.
WOELFFER: Yeah, it sort of gives me pleasure to take a big
brush dipped in a lot of paint and smash it down on a plate
or on a canvas.
PHILLIPS: That happens a lot in all of your paintings all of
the way through.
WOELFFER: It ' s a one-shot kind of thing. It either satisfies
you or it doesn't. This particular case it did, although I
did go over and make some slight little changes, and the
thing is difficult to make these changes without having them
appear to the viewer that there have been changes made because
it wants to have that initial oneness, that impact, which I
felt that this one did.
PHILLIPS: You feel that each one of your pictures should
stand on its own.
WOELFFER: Yeah. I'm not interested in a serial image or a
series of this or a series of that. If it comes out that
way, fine. If it doesn't, that's fine, too. I'm interested
in the particular attack on the thing I'm doing at that time.
PHILLIPS: Shall we start with some earlier paintings now?
WOELFFER: Yeah, we could do that.
PHILLIPS: Go on through. You're going to start from around
WOELFFER: Yeah, I have one in here I'll bring out, and I
don't exactly know that — can you still hear me?
WOELFFER: I'm back in the catacombs here trying to find
PHILLIPS: This painting from the forties was done while you
were a student at the Chicago School of Design.
The one you're bringing out.
If I could find it. Here it is.
We're on our way out. I've got a wine cellar back
PHILLIPS: Oh, yes.
WOELFFER: This is one of my first paintings on black, and I
don't know, but I think it's about '40, '41, somewhere in
there , I've always admired Miro quite a bit, and it
has some of that symbolism and some of that flavor, you know,
Miro's painting called The Circus , with all the little
animals and things on it. It's a casein painting, painted
with casein paint, which people don't seem to use anymore.
Acrylic has taken its place.
PHILLIPS: Had you seen Miro paintings at the Chicago Art
WOELFFER: No, they didn't have any at that time, but I saw
a Miro show at the Arts Club in Chicago, I think, if I
recall, I don't see anything, but I think it was called, if
that's of interest to you. Tight Rope Walker .
PHILLIPS: And were you teaching at the Chicago School of
Design, then? Or were you still a . . . ?
WOELFFER: It was then, I think, called the New Bauhaus, at
that time, and it changed its name to the Institute of
Design. No, I think this was done just before I started
working there. Shall we go on to another one?
PHILLIPS: Yes, let's do.
WOELFFER: You can see it's old by the back.
PHILLIPS: At that time, the prevalent American painting was
a regionalist painting, wasn't it?
WOELFFER: Very regionalist — John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood,
that sort of thing. Here's another one. This [ Twins ] on the
back says 1947, so I really .... I like the black paint.
I use the gloss black and the matte black.
I can see a lot of Max Ernst in that.
Had you seen Max Ernst by this time?
Yes, yeah. I always had this affinity with the
surrealists. Max Ernst and Matta and some of these people.
And I think I have another one. Oh, this one's a little
earlier [ Figure on Beach , 1945]. This one's about a couple
of years before that one. But it's — it's one of the few
horizontal canvases I have. I've never — I very seldom paint
a horizontal painting. They're always vertical, but this
one was a person on the beach, reclining, so it has to be
horizontal if they're reclining, I guess.
PHILLIPS: Had you seen much Picasso by this time?
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. My last years in art school, it was a
time of the Guernica painting, and the Dreams and Lies of
Franco, and all of this period of Picasso, of the Spanish
revolution. This one has coffee grounds in it, a little
added texture to it. And another one from the same period
[ Figure , 1947] .
PHILLIPS: What were you being taught in art school prior to
this period? This kind of painting at all?
WOELFFER: No. No. In art school, we drew a charcoal drawing
of the models three hours every morning, five mornings a week,
the same pose for one week. And then in the afternoon, we
painted the figure for one month, the same pose every day
for one month. Absolutely. They'd take us up to show us
Titian. We had to paint like Titian and those people. But,
see, where do we go from here? We're in the forties some-
place here. Let's move down to Yucatan, or something like
that, when we went down to Mexico.
PHILLIPS: You were down in Yucatan from 1949 through 19 — ?
WOELFFER: We were just there some few months. [August
1949 - January 1950]
PHILLIPS: Yes, living in a very remote fishing village,
where you probably had lots of time to paint.
WOELFFER: Now, I don't — yeah, there was a fellow . . .
We were in Black Mountain College on our way down, and there
was a Canadian boy that wanted one of my paintings , but he
didn't have dollars. But he had canvas, so he gave me
several rolls of Belgian linen, and Ramon Shiva gave me
several hundred pounds of paint.
PHILLIPS: Had you gone to school with Ramon Shiva?
WOELFFER: Oh, no. He was much before me. He helped dig
the Panama Canal, which was long before ray time. This is, I
think, a Yucatan painting [Inner Circle , 1949] — but anyway,
it's that particular period. By using the verticality of the
figures--the figure always has remained in my work, whether
it's a segment of the figure, or. . . • There's always a
subject matter. My work is never purely what you might say
nonf igurati ve .
PHILLIPS: You've always had a very strong sense of design
and color, and I think it's apparent in all of your. , . .
WOELFFER: And we came back from Yucatan, for a short stay of
a few months, and a friend of mine took up a deserted house
he was remodeling, and I did a whole series of paintings on--
this was from a dresser drawer [A Talk] . We painted on
everything that they were ripping down from the house .
PHILLIPS: It's painted on wood, in other words.
WOELFFER: Wood, and even the frame is the last thing from
the ceiling, so it's got all of the. . . . This is one of
the first spray paints that came out, silver spray paints,
and then the rest of it is drawn with the tube. I draw with
the tube of paint, squeezing the tube of paint. And I was
there a few months, until we took off for Colorado Springs,
and we have one following that, a continuation of the figure.
Except when I got out West, the color became heightened quite
a bit, from this darkness of Chicago to a lot of the color
of the West. This is part painting, and part collage, as
you can see.
PHILLIPS: Do I see a bird image up in the upper right-hand
WOELFFER: That could be because right after this, I went
immediately into the bird period, which I will show you an
example of after this particular one.
PHILLIPS: And that had something to do with those clear
blue skies in Colorado and seeing all of the jets and birds
WOELFFER: Yeah, beautiful, yeah.
PHILLIPS: Why don't you leave that there just a minute.
You've always done a lot of collage.
WOELFFER: Yes. I continue to do collage. Even today, I do
collage. Sometimes it's collage purely as a means to an end
and sometimes it's in combination with my painting.
This was 1950-something, there.
Does that have a title?
I think it's called The Conversation . Yeah,
that's right. I have a good memory.
PHILLIPS: Tell me your attitudes about titles while you're
getting out this next painting.
WOELFFER: Well, I never title them till I'm going to have
an exhibition, or sending the work away where it has to have
some kind of an identification. The abstract expressionist
painters, for a long time, were using numbers, which were
very nice, because they didn't want to influence a person
looking at the painting to what the subject matter was
because their subject matter was the painting itself. And I
couldn't quite go that far, because I still had my attachment
with the surrealist thing, where there is a subject matter.
You talked about the birds in the last one, and here we go
with the birds [ Magpie in Egg , 1956] .
PHILLIPS: The bird in the egg.
WOELFFER: Right, I did for two and a half, three years a
whole group of paintings of the bird image.
PHILLIPS: Do you think of that top, horizontal line as
being a horizon line, or was that just something that
happened in the painting?
WOELFFER: We had kind of a fence out in front of our house
in Colorado which was a feeding platform for the birds, and
maybe that is it. When Dr. Valentiner came to visit us, he
saw the upper shelves of our bookcases with Indian artifacts
on it, and he sort of used that as a way to explain the
horizon line. So I think one is as good as the next one, you
PHILLIPS: Do you think of those images in the top as being
calligraphic in the . . . ?
WOELFFER: Yes, very definitely. Maybe the frieze on the
Parthenon, or something like that.
PHILLIPS: And you were in Colorado Springs for nearly seven
WOELFFER: Right. Teaching.
PHILLIPS: Teaching, entertaining friends passing through.
WOELFFER: Right, and working. Seven years is just right,
right time to leave there. We left Colorado in 1957 and took
off for two and a half years on the island of Ischia in
Italy, and when I got over there, I was influenced quite a
bit by the walls on the buildings and so on from the last
war. They had a V for victory . . . [ Forio Napoli , 1958]
PHILLIPS: Why don't you just leave that back so it won't
WOELFFER: ... V for victory all the time, the triple V,
and all. But I still retained this horizon line and I think,
until I got back, here, California, 1960, when we returned.
PHILLIPS: The triple V comes from Italian graffiti?
WOELFFER: Yeah, on the wall from the war--victory .
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I remember your earlier talking about a
quality of paint that your teacher, Boris Anisfeld, wanted
his students to get into a painting. Do you feel that a
painting like this has achieved that?
WOELFFER: I think so, but he never thought so. When he saw
me several years later, after I left school, he said, "You
still paint lilce a housepainter . "
PHILLIPS: Well, he was from a different generation.
WOELFFER: Yeah, he used to work with Diaghilev, and he did
sets and costumes for the Ballet Russe, the Monte Carlo. Let's
see what else I can find. This thing started to--maybe some
of this movement becomes quite kind of abrupt here, but when
I came back, a new image sort of came about. Not really, in
a sense, but this kind of shape, which is not too unlike,
maybe, what was happening, in a sense, with these pictures,
or some of the early sculptures.
PHILLIPS: That's right. That very simplified — and it was
also a period when American painting was going into a more
minimal image. And everyone's kind of influenced by
what ' s . . .
WOELFFER: And I still kept the horizon line, as you can see.
It's still there. Only it took a form of some kind of actual
message, if you want to say . . .
PHILLIPS: And that's Hommage a Danny .
WOELFFER: Yeah. Danny Alvin was a Dixieland drummer friend
PHILLIPS: And that was done in '63, that painting.
WOELFFER: Right, '63.
PHILLIPS: And that's when you were back in Los Angeles.
WOELFFER: Right. And then they got a lot simpler and
simpler, and I have an example here [ S.H . Painting #2 , 1961] .
Because I was interested in the brushstroke, I thought I'd
really make the brushstroke, which I did, and it came to this
simplicity, still, this egg form or whatever and the single
brushstroke. This is getting a little less on the top up
PHILLIPS: How do you decide which paintings to save? How
do you decide which ones are successful?
WOELFFER: Gee, I don't know.
PHILLIPS: Why don't you maybe leave that up while you're
getting the next one, so the camera can get a look at it.
WOELFFER: Many times, Dina helps me make that decision by
saying, "We're going to keep that one." So I give it to
her; she has her own collection of them.
PHILLIPS: But you can always tell when you look, when it
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. When it works or not. I'm showing you
just one at a time of these. You know, there are maybe a few
hundred in between each one of these you see, so all I'm
giving you is a kind of a flavor of the whole shebang. And
then we came into the continuing brushstrokes, but something
else has been added at this particular time. It's a big
brushstroke plus the hands, and it has sort of the power of
this last lithograph, in a certain sense. [ Violet Hands for
Albert] But you notice that it still has retained that . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . the horizon line.
WOELFFER: The horizon line is still up there. And then
when I went to Turkey, I let the hands go just quite a bit
and went on to working with just the . . .
WOELFFER: . . . the fingerprint sort of thing. And then
working from the fingerprints. See, this is a hand, but these
are just thumbprints. [Ten After Three , 1966] And the horizon
line starts to go around the border of the whole painting.
And then I started with acrylic paints. I'd never used it
before, so it changed the character of my work to the point
of my paintings began to get a little flatter.
PHILLIPS: This painting with the fingerprints is a very
primitive approach to art making. You think of the caves.
WOELFFER: Oh, yeah. The first painting was done with the
fingers. And then I went from the fingers to the lips — not
literally [ Lips , 1968]. But as I said, I started to work
with acrylic paints, which are completely different character
than oil paint. These were first collages, from the torn
PHILLIPS: When was this painting done?
WOELFFER: See, it's never left the studio, so it doesn't
have any identification.
PHILLIPS: But it would be in the sixties.
WOELFFER: I would say '68, '69, in there, '70, I don't know.
But the character of this paint is to work very flat. And
when I was in Paris, I did a whole series of the collages--
which, if you want to see one, I could pull one out here.
[Untitled collage: Sky series] Being over in Europe, it
was such a hassle for shipping and everything. So I just
worked with the . . .
PHILLIPS: That's very nice.
WOELFFER: . . . the torn acrylic paper, see.
PHILLIPS: I know you have an Arp woodblock of the lips. Was
that sort of an inspiration?
WOELFFER: It could be. That, and the Man Ray . . .
PHILLIPS: . . . the Man Ray lips.
WOELFFER: But the paintings started to take on the character
of the collage, even to the fact I showed the torn paper,
even. And then the lips went on for a couple of years, till
I came back with something a little more to the total figure
again, returning to my early paintings, almost. I mean,
there's not too much difference between the characteristic of
this [ Figure , 1975] and the ones of the forties. And still
further, even going back to the black background, such as the
early paintings were. [ Figure , 1975]
PHILLIPS: And this is acrylic paint?
WOELFFER: This is acrylic, yeah. I was able to master to
the point getting the paint feeling as oil paint, and I liked
the fact that it dries so rapidly. And then we come up here
to the very late ones, where the total figure is back in the
painting again. And that one, and the other one which I have
here. Yes, this one.
PHILLIPS: I notice that the painting we just looked at is
entitled Poem for Minotaure  .
WOELFFER: For Minotaure.
WOELFFER: Yeah, Minotaure — there were eleven editions of a
magazine published by Skira many years ago, a surrealist
magazine, and I thought this was a nice one to end with,
because it matches me [ Figure , 1976] .
PHILLIPS: [laughter] It's a beautiful painting.
WOELFFER: Surrealism, maybe a little erotic. I don't know.
Some people accuse me of being erotic in a humorous kind of
PHILLIPS: And this was done in '76.
WOELFFER: Yeah, this is quite — still warm.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I know that you spent a long time with
Moholy-Nagy in the design school when you were teaching, and
I feel all through your work a very strong sense of color
and design and taste. Do you feel you owe a lot of that to
that training you had with him?
WOELFFER: I think so, yes. My first teaching job was with
him, and he stressed a certain, you know, perfection, even,
you know, in automatic working.
So that gives you an idea — the run of everything.
PHILLIPS: All right. Well, it's been good going through all
of these things and seeing the early beginnings, and where
you are right now. All right, is there anything else that
you . . . ?
WOELFFER: No, I think we've got the history book all com-
PHILLIPS: All right. Well, thanks very much, and I think
that'll be the end.
American Hospital Institution and
School, Gaziantep, Turkey
see Woelffer, Dina
Arman (Armand Fernandez)
Art Digest (periodical)
Art International (periodical)
Artists Gallery, New York
Artists Union, Chicago
Art News (periodical)
Art Students League, Chicago
Art Students League, New York
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO)
Auditorium Hotel, Chicago
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
57, 59-60, 70
27-29, 30-31, 174
Bach, Johann Sebastian
Balaban theaters, Chicago
Ballet de Monte Carlo
Bauhaus (Weimar, Chicago, Ulm)
Bellevue Hospital, New York
Bengston, Billy Al
Benton, Thomas Hart
Black Mountain College
Black Mountain Review (periodical)
Borgrauve, Count El lie
Boston Institute of Contemporary Art
"Six American Painters"
The Blind Leading the Blind
Burroughs, Edgar Rice
Byrnes, Barbara (Mrs. James)
40, 48, 49, 146
57-60, 61, 62, 170
72, 73, 75, 78, 79,
103, 111, 122
72, 73, 75, 76, 78,
79-80, 103, 104,
111, 122, 135, 141
Calder, Alexander 96
California Institute of the Arts 136-138
Callahan, Harry 85
Calloway, Cab 4 3
Canavier, John 134
Capa de Monti Museum, Naples 86
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh 56,
International exhibition 76,
Castello Academy, Puria, Switzerland 124
Cedar Bar, New York 81,
Cezanne, Paul 85,
Chapin, Francis 33
Chermayeff , Serge 68
Chicago Art Institute
Chicago Arts Club
Chicago Institute of Design
Chicago Museum of Natural History
Chicago School of Design
see Chicago Institute of Design
Chicago World's Fair, 1933
Chirico, Giorgio de
Chouinard Art Institute
Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
Columbian World's Fair, Chicago
Container Corporation of America
Cooper , Ron
Curry, John Steuart
Curtis Airport, East St. Louis
5-6, 7, 11, 22-34,
76, 96, 116, 125,
22-34, 42, 63,
7, 30, 45, 97, 98,
40-41, 48-51, 53-
55, 57, 58, 59, 68,
75, 115, 167, 168
71, 74, 104, 147
Dale, Chester, and collection
Denver-Chicago Shipping Company
Diana Court Building, Chicago
Drake Hotel, Chicago
see Kondratieff, Virginia
Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles
Edmondson, Leonard 132, 133
Egan, Charlie 115
Ellington, Duke 43
Elliott, Jim 125
Engel, Jules 121
Ernst, Max 90, 169
Ewing, Edgar 23, 44
Fantasia (film) 89
Ferus Gallery 123, 126-127
Field, Marshall 4
Field Museum, Chicago
see Chicago Museum of Natural
Filippo's restaurant, Ischia 83, 91
Fine Arts Building, Chicago 6-7
Franco, Francisco 89, 97
Frankenthaler , Helen 129
Freund, Emmy Lou
see Woelffer, Emmy Lou
Freund, Ernest 44
Friedman, Richard 153
Fuller, Buckminster 57, 59
Gardner, Helen 27
Art Through the Ages 27
Gauguin, Paul 88, 143
Giacometti, Alberto 100, 110, 122
Giesbert, Edmond 27
Gogh, Vincent van 88
Goldowski, Natasha 59
Goodman Theatre, Chicago 23
Gorky, Arshile 90
Gottlieb, Adolph 56
Graham, Don 134
Graham, Ernest 85
Graham award 85
Grell, Louis 11-12
Greenberg, Clement 58, 77, 113, 127-
Grimaldi fortress, Antibes, France 85
Gropius, Walter 70, 146
Guggenheim, John Simon, Fellowship 124, 139-140
Guggenheim, Peggy 115
Guggenheim, Solomon R,
Gut Bucket Seven
56, 113, 115
Honolulu Academy of Arts
House of David (religious colony)
Huntington Hartford Foundation
Illinois National Guard
Jazz Limited club, Chicago
Jepson Art Institute
Johnson, James P.
73, 78, 121
Kantor , Jo
106, 113, 124, 136-
Katz theaters, Chicago
Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig
Knickerbocker Hotel, Chicago
Kooning, Willem de
Kraft Cheese Company
Kuh, Katharine, Gallery
75, 78, 87,
La Fontaine, Arthur de
La Fontaine, Jean de
La Fontaine, Margaritte de
La Fontaine, Marie de
La Fontaine, Rose de
La Jolla Museum of Art
Lakeview High School, Chicago
Lambert Field Airport, St. Louis
Landau, Felix, Gallery
Lane Tech High School, Chicago
Las saw, Ibram
Leonardo da Vinci (ship)
Levy, Julien, Gallery
Lewis, Meade Lux
6, 12, 14
12, 13, 14
53, 133, 152
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
"Fifteen European Painters"
Los Angeles Institute of
Contemporary Art (LAICA)
Los Angeles Times (newspaper)
McCall ' s (periodical)
see Woelffer, Dina
Massachusetts Institute of
"Four American Painters"
Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig
Monti, Frederica Beer
Motherwell, Betty (Mrs. Robert)
24, 27, 32,
30, 49, 98-99,
46, 47-51, 53-
68, 69-70, 75,
Museum of Modern Art
60, 79, 80
National Endowment for the Arts
National Recovery Act
see Chicago Institute of Design
Newport Harbor Art Museum
"The Artist Collects"
New York Central Railroad
North Carolina Museum of Art
North Central Association of
Schools of Design and Art
141, 148, 149
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Otis Art Institute
Paepcke, Elizabeth (Pussy)
Parker Pen Company
Parks Air College, Illinois
Pasadena Art Museum
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Phillips, Joann (Mrs. Gifford)
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Dreams and Lies of Franco
Les Demoiselles d 'Avignon
Poindexter, Elinor, Gallery, New York
Pro Arte Quartet
24, 27, 49, 85,
97, 100, 117,
, 123, 158, 169
58-59, 60, 116,
121, 123, 140-
, 123, 132, 140-
QRS Piano Rolls
Quay Gallery, San Francisco
Reserve Officers Training Corps
Ricardo ' s Restaurant, Chicago
Roosevelt, Franklin Delano
78-79, 121, 124,
Ruben, Richards [cont'd]
Claremont series 127
Ruscha, Ed 134
Russell, Pee Wee 120
Ruttenberg, Jan 69-70
Ryerson, Edward L. 2 3
Saddle and Cycle Club, Chicago 41
St. John, Alan 12
St. Louis University 23
Sander, Ludwig 77-78
San Francisco Museum of Art 141
Santa Barbara Museum of Art 149
Saturday Evening Post (periodical) 8
Saturnia (ship) 82, 107
Scully, Jodi, Gallery 142, 152
Seldis, Henry 150
Seville, Algernon Sidney 2, 3-4, 18
see Woelffer, Rita Seville
Shahn, Ben 59
Shapiro, Miriam 137
Shiva, Ramon 63, 17
Shopen, Kenneth 26
Sinzabaugh, Arthur 85
Skira, Albert, publisher 178-179
Smith, Bessie 43
Snow, Douglas 121
Sopkin, Henry 18
Sotheby Parke Bernet 141
Sprague, Marshall 72
Stey, William 77
Stix, Hugh 56
Stothart, Herbert 124, 138-139
Stuart, David 121, 123, 140
Tabasco, Al 120
Tamarind Lithography Workshop 133-134, 137
Tartarsky, Stephanie 79, 80, 82
Tawney, Lenore 81, 108
Taylor, Josephine 86, 99, 100-101
Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs 74
Fine Arts Center
Teagarden, Jack 41
Tree Studio Building,
Twentieth Century Limited
U.S. Army Geodesic Map Division
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Federal Art Project
U.S. Works Progress Administration
University of California, Los Angeles
University of Chicago
University of Colorado
University of Florence, Italy
University of Illinois
"Contemporary American Painting"
University of Iowa
University of Southern California
Valentiner, William R.
Vlaminck, Maurice de
Weber, Ann (Mrs.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Wight, Frederick S.
Will Rogers Park
Woelffer, Dina Anderson McLean
Woelffer, Emmy Lou (first wife)
Woelffer, Rita Seville
Woodward, Mrs. Frederick
Wud 1 , Tom
72, 104, 121,
56-59, 60-68, 69,
70, 75, 78, 81-84,
99, 100, 103, 115-
116, 129, 141-142,
146, 157, 164, 176
19, 20, 21,
INDEX OF EMERSON WOELFFER WORKS
Conversation , The 172
Figure (1947) 169
Figure (1975) 178
Figure (1976) 179
Figure on Beach 169
Forio Napoli 174
Homage to Danny Alvin 95, 175
Homage to R.M. 163
Inner Circle 170
Kiss , The 132
Magpie in Egg 173
Poem for Minotaure 178
S.H. Painting #2 175
Sky series (untitled collage) 177
Talk , A 171
Ten After Three 176-177
Tight Rope Walker 167-168
Violet Hands for Albert 176